A Democratic party rule designed to encourage women to participate in state committee elections has backfired for some female candidates running in the 2018 Pennsylvania primary. Some now say it's time for the rule – which also inadvertently excludes transgender candidates – to be reexamined.

The rule reserves about half of all committee positions for men and women, respectively. But thanks to the sustained surge in women running for political office following the 2016 presidential election, the rule had the opposite of its intended effect – blocking candidates, like Mariel J.K. Martin, from certain committee seats on Tuesday. 

Both Martin, a campaign coordinator, and fellow candidate Judi Golding ranked among the top eight vote-getters among the candidates running for the eight available committee spots in Philadelphia’s First Senatorial District. But both ranked below four other female candidates who earned higher vote totals. 

So, despite garnering a thousand or more votes than rival male candidates, like Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke or former City Commissioner employee Noam Kugelmass, both women were ultimately disqualified. Martin and Golding will watch from the sidelines while Clarke, Kugelmass and two other men take slots by dint of gender parity rules instead of votes cast.

“I had over 11,000 votes, but it wasn't enough to be part of the group of women who will represent the First Senate District,” Martin said. “It’s almost like a bittersweet aftereffect of the 2016 election.”

District-level political committees are elected across the country to serve as governing bodies for the state chapters of political parties – committee members help nominate statewide candidates, pass political platforms and guide the state party organization itself. As universal suffrage went into effect nearly a century ago, so-called “equal division rules” were devised to combat a dearth of female committee candidates in certain states. State committees would decertify some candidates to maintain a rough gender balance that depended on the population of a given district.

Today, Martin says, it may be time rewrite that rule. She said that beyond her personal experience, the equal division rule should be reexamined solely on the basis that it did not directly account for transgender candidates.

“I do find it to be problematic on several levels. You're doing this as a male-female binary and some people don’t self-identify that way,” Martin said. “The state party rules were meant to ensure gender equality...in the past, they’ve had to ask a lot of women to run. The goal was to be inclusive – but now it leaves out a lot of people.”

Martin said the PA state party could opt to clarify the rule above and beyond the terms dictated by the Democratic National Committee. 

Henry Sias, a one-time Democratic transgender candidate for judge, concurred that aspects of the rule, as written, had the potential to be “discriminatory.” But he said that state party could simply choose to interpret the equal division rule as not applying to non-binary candidates.

“I think the rule can be applied by its plain language in a way that simply exempts non-binary vote-getters from the split,” he said. “If a non-binary candidate was among the top vote-getters, let's assume in an eight-slot race, then they would be seated and the other top seven would be split according to the rule.”

In the meantime, Martin said that she doesn’t hold any grudges and is focused on organizing ahead of the November general election.

“We’re the Democratic Party and we’re supposed to have all these liberal principles. It’s time to reevaluate the implications of the way this particular state party rule is set up,” she said. “But despite all that, we have to unify.”