Campaign Finance Laws and Gender Disparity in Elections

Amber Rose Maltbie
Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 2, 2011

Money in politics plays a critical role in an election’s integrity and fairness (perceived and real), as well as post-election governmental ethics.1 Political finance – alternatively referred to as campaign or electoral finance – is therefore a crucial aspect to a democracy’s ability to thrive.2 A campaign finance law can improve the ability to elect a representative democracy,’3 thereby improving the overall quality of the electoral process.

Among the public policy goals advanced by electoral financing statutory schemes are increased disclosure of contributions and expenditures to curb against corrupt practices, and spending caps to “even the playing field” by candidates who don’t have personal wealth.4

Another public policy goal, which remains elusive in the international discourse on this issue, is closing the gender gap between elected officials. As a global standard for international political finance standards is developed, “gendered” provisions should be included to facilitate the increased resource mobilization necessary to achieve gender equity.

Politics, Money and Implications for Women

Access to the financial resources necessary to compete in a participatory democracy may pre-determine whose voice is heard loudest and most often, thereby marginalizing many potential candidates.5 This effect is particularly true for women, who continue to be situated inferior to men in terms of economic status and networks for financial support.6 Although international legislation and women’s conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), include articles urging gender parity in political participation and decision-making roles, none address the economic barriers that inhibit those goals from becoming reality.7 Furthermore, the public discourse on developing international norms for political finance has been largely silent on the implications of potential or existing rules on gender.8 In some cases, such as Trinidad and Tobago, no campaign finance regulations exist at all, leaving women candidates especially vulnerable to the economic advantages their male counterparts enjoy through moneyed networks and higher earnings.9 Nonetheless, “gendered” electoral finance laws and practices have been implemented in some parts of the world, and these experiences should be consulted as an international norm continues to develop.10

Campaign Finance Practices to Decrease Gender Disparity in Elections

Laws that attempt to neutralize gender disparities caused by campaign finance often target one of two issues: the costs women uniquely or disproportionately face when deciding to run and campaigning; or political parties’ receipt of public funds.

For example, child care and domestic responsibilities have consistently registered as major obstacles to running for office.11 Campaigning requires considerable flexibility on the part of the candidate, which is difficult for women with primary parenting responsibilities.12 Furthermore, women must consider covering the cost of dependent adult care and household work in their absence.13 A woman presidential candidate in Suriname confirmed the weight of these concerns: “Women who run for public office are either single, have no children, have grown children or have a support network for childcare. Childcare is an issue which starts before nomination, because in practice those who have a problem with childcare are either excluded or exclude themselves from the system.”14 In the United Kingdom, research revealed that women candidates also confront these obstacles.15 According to a Labour Party candidate, stay at home mothers are “automatically precluded” because they lack the money to support, among other things, childcare.16

Canada’s Election Law seeks to alleviate some of this stress by allowing candidates to use campaign funds for childcare and domestic duties.17 While a positive legislative move, some argue it still falls short. A woman still in the nomination phase would not benefit from this provision, leading the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing to call for a tax-deduction for nominating expenses, citing the unequal burden that childcare costs impose on many women.18

An alternative method for balancing gender inequities in political participation is conditioning the use of public funds by political parties with meeting certain quotas. This strategy has been employed in states where political parties receive public subsidies from the government. France, for example, has implemented a “carrot and stick” approach to receipt of public funds.19 There, political parties face financial sanctions on public funds if the candidate list forwarded for election is not comprised of 50% by women.20 Sanctions become increasingly steep as the number of women on a party list fall below the 50% threshold.21

Conversely, other countries have “rewarded” parties that promote women candidates. In Timor Leste, parties with female candidates are provided with more broadcast airtime.22 Panama’s 2002 electoral law amendments established subsidies for political parties, earmarking a certain percentage for training workshops and activities for women.23 Croatia provides an additional 10% of public funding to political parties for each elected Parliamentary candidate of the “underrepresented gender.”24

Moving Forward

In the last ten years, developing an international standard for best campaign finance codes and practices has emerged as a priority for the United Nations, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, as well as regional governmental and intergovernmental bodies.25 As the march towards a “strong set of international political finance standards” moves forward,26 the role that campaign finance rules play in the ability – or inability – of women to engage in the political process should be a prominent part of the discourse and debate. In particular, campaign finance statutes and regulations should include gender-sensitive provisions that open the door for viable women candidates to participate. The experiences of countries already implementing these gendered provisions should be considered to provide insight towards this goal.

  • 1. Magnus Öhman et al., Political Finance Regulation: The Global Experience 13 (Magnus Öhman & Hani Zainulbhai eds., Int’l Found. for Electoral Systems 2009).
  • 2. Id.
  • 3. Jarrett Blanc et al., Challenging the Norms and Standards of Election Administration 76 (Int’l Found. for Electoral Systems ed., 2007).
  • 4. Id. at 75-93.
  • 5. Gretchen Luchsinger Sidhu and Ruth Meena, Electoral Financing to Advance Women’s Political Participation: A Guide for UNDP Support 5 (Gretchen Luchsinger Sidhu ed., United Nations Development Programme 2006 – 2007).
  • 6. Women’s Environment and Development Organization, Women Candidates and Campaign Finance 4 (Dec. 2007).
  • 7. Id. at 6.
  • 8. Julie Ballington, Gender Equality in Political Party Funding in Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns, International Idea 157 (Reginald Austin & Maja Tjernström eds., 2003).
  • 9. Interview by iKNOWpolitics with Mary King, Independent Senator from Trinidad and Tobago, available at
  • 10. Electoral Financing, Supra note 5 at 32 (At the 2003 Inter-American Forum on Political Parties organized by the Organization of American States, recommendations were made to address whether finance is an obstacle to women’s political participation. Chief among them was: “Public financing and gender equality are not variables independent of each other. Any analysis should be closely linked to electoral regimes, party systems and forms of government.”).
  • 11. See Electoral Financing, supra note 5; Women Candidates and Campaign Finance supra note 6; and Gender Equality in Political Party Funding, supra note 8.
  • 12. Gender Equality in Political Party Funding supra note 8 at 162.
  • 13. Women Candidates and Campaign Finance supra note 6 at 4.
  • 14. Id.
  • 15. Memorandum from the Fawcett Society on The Experiences of Democratic Liberal Women in Parliamentary Selections, Interim Findings, available at
  • 16. Gender Equality in Political Party Funding supra note 8 at 162.
  • 17. Canada Election Act § 409(1) – “Personal expenses of a candidate are his or her electoral campaign expenses, other than election expenses, that are reasonably incurred in relation to his or her campaign and include (a) travel and living expenses; (b) childcare expenses; (c) expenses relating to the provision of care for a person with a physical or mental incapacity for whom the candidate normally provides such care; and (d) in the case of a candidate who has a disability, additional personal expenses that are related to the disability.
  • 18. Women Candidates and Campaign Finance supra note 6 at 16.
  • 19. Women Candidates and Campaign Finance supra note 6 at 15.
  • 20. Id.
  • 21. Electoral Financing, supra note 5 at 31.
  • 22. Id. at 31.
  • 23. Women Candidates and Campaign Finance supra note 6 at 15-16.
  • 24. Political Finance Regulation, supra note 1 at 72.
  • 25. Ryan Patrick Phair & Laurel E. Shanks, Political Finance and Corrupt Practices in International Election Principles: Democracy and the Rule of Law 353 (John Hardin Young, ed., 2009).
  • 26. Id.