With November fast approaching, much of the national conversation is centered around the election. If this one is similar to the last, however, America’s voters will represent a limited sector of America’s populace. In the 2016 presidential election, just 56% of the voting-age population cast ballots, helping the U.S. rank 26th for voter turnout among 32 OECD countries.
One factor that may contribute to abysmal voter turnout is the fact our elections fall on Tuesdays, when most Americans are working. Although the vast majority of states require employees get time off to vote if they request it, policies vary widely. Some states only offer unpaid time or a single hour for voting, whereas others only require time off if an employee’s shift precludes them from getting to the polls.
In the era of coronavirus, when social distancing rules could lengthen the time needed to vote, these provisions seem even less adequate than before. To remedy this, business leaders can — and should — get involved. A growing number of companies have pledged to give workers paid time off to vote; they range from progressive startups, such as Uber and Twitter, to traditional firms, such as Duff & Phelps and JPMorgan Chase.
“No American should have to choose between earning a paycheck and voting,” said Dan Schulman, president and CEO of PayPal, one of three companies that founded Time to Vote, an initiative that has enlisted pledges from more than 1,000 companies representing more than 6 million U.S. workers. “Business leaders around the country must step up and do what’s needed to ensure all of their employees will have the opportunity to have their voices heard this November.”
Besides being the “right thing to do,” why should business leaders care whether employees vote and commit to influencing their workforce? How does an engaged democracy affect professional stakeholders, constituents, and society at large? How might corporate investment in maximizing voter turnout yield returns that support competitive advantage?
1. Demonstrate Good Corporate Citizenship
Voting is a civic duty, and encouraging voting should be a corporate duty (especially since a mere 64% of voting-age Americans are even registered to vote). While every company, of course, must adhere to its state’s legal requirements, some are doing what ElectionDay.org calls going “beyond a compliance mentality”: They are either turning Election Day into a corporate holiday or offering “civic time off” that employees can use on or before November 3.
By taking these extra measures, companies are allowing employees to wholly participate in the democratic process: serving as poll workers, offering rides to elderly voters, providing childcare, and so on. As Nora Gilbert, director of partnerships for Vote.org, explained: “We really want companies to go further and acknowledge the unique difficulties of this moment. Two hours [for voting] may not be enough… There’s a reckoning in general for the role that companies play in society. This is a way to show they are getting their own house in order.”
Business leaders can think of Election Day as an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to corporate social impact and citizenship, and to serve a model for the greater business community. Patagonia provided a powerful example of this by closing its headquarters, retail stores, and warehouses on Election Day in both 2016 and 2018. “‘Corporate citizenship’ gets a lot of lip service, but too few companies stop to consider what citizenship really means,” Rose Marcario, the company’s former CEO, wrote on LinkedIn. “It’s not just about being a good member of your community, crucial as that is… It requires supporting democracy. And democracy needs our support more than ever.”
2. Advance Racial Justice
A recent University of Chicago study analyzed how long it took different populations to vote in the 2016 presidential election. It found that residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods waited 29% longer than those in white neighborhoods, and were 74% more likely to spend more than 30 minutes simply waiting in line. That lost time, Sendhil Mullainathan wrote in the New York Times, is the modern equivalent of a poll tax — a tax that is levied most heavily on lower-income hourly and gig workers, among which Black Americans are overrepresented.
According to Keith Chen, one of the economists behind the University of Chicago study, offering Election Day as a company-wide holiday — and thus allowing individuals to avoid polling places during the busy pre- and post-work slots — could “reduce racial disparities” and “allow more African Americans to vote.” For leaders who claim to support racial equity, therefore, offering paid time off on Election Day is an easy way to take meaningful action.
Although the coffee giant Starbucks will not close its doors on Election Day, CEO Kevin Johnson has publicly acknowledged the relationship between racial justice and voting. “We know that barriers exist, notably in Black and Brown communities throughout the nation, that lend to systemic racism and require greater voter access and protections,” he wrote, promising that no employee would “have to choose between working their shift or voting.”
3. Engage and Inspire
In today’s politically charged environment, workers increasingly cite their desire for employers, including CEOs, to speak out about social issues — even if the leader’s perspectives run contrary to their own. Discussing their findings in Fast Company, a group of researchers said people are 20% more likely “to want to work for a company where the CEO takes a humanistic stance on a political issue unrelated to their business.” “This effect is true regardless of the job seeker’s age, education, gender, or political orientation,” they wrote. “And interestingly, the job seeker does not need to agree with the CEO’s views.”
Leaders can view the run-up to Election Day as an opportunity to serve as an inspiring ambassador to their employees — and to highlight their company’s greater purpose, something that has often been correlated with improved employee performance. One study, for instance, found that “thriving employees are three times more likely to work for a company with a strong sense of purpose.” During the coronavirus pandemic, this desire for purpose has become even more pronounced: Employees need a reason to feel energized by their companies — to feel as though they are part of something bigger, especially if they are isolated and working from home.
One corporation that has promoted this sense of shared purpose is Old Navy, which has encouraged its 50,000 employees to serve as poll workers on Election Day, and promised they will be compensated with eight hours of pay. “We are constantly inspired by our store teams, with their passion for community work and fostering a sense of belonging both in and outside of our store walls,” said Nancy Green, the company’s president. “Every voice in this country matters and deserves to be heard at the polls.”
Following in the footsteps of many companies joining the charge, business leaders should strongly consider making Election Day a corporate holiday — or, at the very least, they should ensure their employees have ample information and resources, as well as paid time off, to vote on or before November 3. By doing so, they will underscore their commitment to corporate citizenship, advance racial justice, and engage their employees at a pivotal moment in history.