Women helped propel Virginia Democrat Ralph Northam into the Old Dominion’s Executive Mansion in last year’s off-year gubernatorial election: Northam won their vote by 22 points. In 2016, Hillary Clinton prevailed among women by a smaller margin, 17 points. But the vote breakdown also shows that unmarried women actually helped elect Northam: Although unmarried women comprised just 16 percent of voters in the gubernatorial election, a majority of those women, 77 percent, cast their ballots for Northam (54 percent of married women did). Clinton won 61 percent of unmarried woman voters in 2016.
A new report from the Washington-based Voter Participation Center, an organization that registers voters and studies voting habits, finds that unmarried women could be a powerful political force, but many don’t vote or aren’t registered to vote. Yet single women make up half of all women and 26 percent of the adult population.
One of the report’s key findings hinges on the “marriage gap”—the difference between how married and unmarried women vote: Marital status plays more of a role in voting behavior than the gender gap, the difference between how men and women vote.
During the 2016 election, about two-thirds of unmarried women were registered to vote, but only 57 percent of those women actually voted. But of those single women who did vote, just 32 percent voted for Donald Trump. (Clinton won married women voters of all races only by a slim majority: 49 percent versus 47 percent.)
While unmarried women are not a homogenous voting bloc, they do share some common characteristics, the center found. Unmarried women are more likely to live in poverty; earn the minimum wage; have higher rates of unemployment; and have fewer savings. Half of unmarried women earn less than $50,000 annually. About 40 percent of unmarried women are women of color, and about a third are under the age of 30.
There are significant obstacles to registration and voting for this cohort, ranging from onerous voter registration requirements (especially for women of color) to inaccessible polling places and frequent address changes (it’s difficult to remain registered if one is moving from state to state). Poverty and job insecurity are also likely culprits, which not only make it difficult to get transportation to far-off polling places or to vote within specified hours, but also affect registration and voter engagement.
To address these issues, the Voter Participation Center specifically targets single women in their voter registration efforts. They also target members of what the center calls the “Rising American Electorate” that face obstacles to voter registration, like young people, communities of color, and other under-represented groups.
“It’s not that easy in this country to register to vote,” says Voter Participation Center President Page Gardner. She explains that her organization “bring[s] the registration process” to these groups through massive mail-in registration campaigns. The center has registered about four million people since its inception in 2003, and about one million of those new voters are unmarried women.
Gardner points out that the growing numbers of unmarried women are an unappreciated political force. “If candidates and policymakers don’t understand the importance of the marriage gap and marital status in the way they run their campaigns or as they think through public policies, it’s just malpractice,” she says.
Past studies have consistently shown that married women, unlike their unmarried counterparts, are more likely to vote for conservative candidates. According to recent research by Christopher T. Stout and Kelsy Kretschmer, assistant professors at Oregon State University, and Leah Ruppanner, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, marriage and its accompanying life changes may alter a woman’s worldview.
In their 2017 study, the trio analyzed the answers to a single question in a 2012 American National Election Study: “Do you think that what happens generally to women in this country will have something to do with what happens in your life?” Unmarried women—and married black women—tend to say yes; they see their futures as being tied up with the futures of all other women, especially considering that this group of women is more likely to earn low wages and have unstable jobs than their married counterparts.
Reduced earning power and employment instability may help explain why unmarried white and Latina women are more likely to vote for Democrats than their married counterparts. (Black women tend to vote for Democrats regardless of marital status.)
But married women in heterosexual relationships are less likely to see themselves on the same trajectory as single women. Instead, they may see their futures more closely linked to their husband’s. Gender imbalance in relationships persists, as most women still earn less than men, leading the researchers to conclude, “it is within married women’s interests to support policies and politicians who protect their husbands and improve their status.”
Stout, Kretschmer, and Ruppanner have also noted that politicians may want to target policy proposals to specific demographics like unmarried women. Further, politicians shouldn’t “assume that married women will connect to other women based on a notion of shared womanhood.” Feminist arguments, the researchers discovered, may resonate more with those who suffer unequal treatment, like unmarried women, and single and married black women.
Indeed, the Voter Participation Center’s report points out that unmarried women are disproportionately affected by the divisive policies that continue to come from the Trump administration, which frequently harm women in poverty and women of color. The GOP’s recent tax reform privileges the wealthy over the poor, and through repealing the individual mandate, threatens health-care access to millions, including large numbers of single women.
But the Voter Participation Center also discovered that about one-third of unmarried women who voted in the 2016 election may not vote in 2018. So, if progressive politicians want to shake up the Trumpian status quo in November, they should move boldly to prioritize the economic and social issues that affect single women.