Everywhere we turn lately, there’s one message we can’t avoid: Vote. Sometimes it’s even dramatized to the false choice, “Vote or die.” With such a pivotal election just weeks away, people are doing all they can to maximize turnout this November. In fact, the push to vote has become such a common refrain that it’s almost a meme, a non sequitur thrown into any and every context — like when Chris Evans accidentally revealed NSFW pictures on Instagram and turned the scandal into an opportunity to tell people to vote.
Turnout in the U.S. is typically low compared to many other developed, wealthy nations. In the 2016 elections, about 60% of eligible voters cast a ballot. During the 2014 midterm elections, only 36.4% did. In contrast, Belgium had about an 87% voter turnout during its 2014 elections, and South Korea had about 78% turnout in its 2017 elections. U.S. turnout is low for a variety of complicated reasons, but the most obvious is that voting in the U.S. is like navigating a timed obstacle course, with voter suppression tactics disproportionately affecting the ability of Black Americans to vote. Voter ID laws, shifting voter registration rules and deadlines, closures of polling sites, cutting voting hours, even having to register to vote all pose barriers to participation. We’re one of the few nations that leave voter registration entirely in the hands of individuals, instead of automatically adding people to voter rolls once they reach eligible age. New obstacles are also constantly being added — for example, people with felony convictions in Florida, whose voting rights were restored in 2018, were recently barred from voting if they have outstanding fines related to their sentence, with efforts to pay off those fines blocked.
And, sadly, among the most common obstacles to voting today is the fact that many Americans simply don’t have the time. In a survey of registered voters who didn’t end up voting in the 2014 midterms, 67% cited lack of time as the main reason. Within this group, 35% said it was because of work or school conflicts. If Election Day fell on a weekend or was made a national holiday, voting would become easier for a lot of people. Yet some politicians, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have called the idea of an Election Day holiday a “power grab” attempt by Democrats.
That means if you’re currently employed, whether you’ll have enough time at the polls on November 3rd rests on how kind your employer is feeling. Often, it’s salaried, white-collar employees working in corporate offices who get ample opportunity to vote in-person without missing pay, further skewing what kinds of people get a say in politics. And while this year there’s been a bigger push from corporations to guarantee that their own employees have enough time to vote, it’s sobering that it wasn’t a bigger priority before.
“We have Election Day as a paid holiday for the first time,” says Emma, 26, who works in public health. “I have always had to vote early — as a college student, and as a government employee who didn’t think the hassle of day-of voting was worth it.” She says that this year, her company is doing even more than giving time off. “We’re working with an organization to increase access to information as to how to vote safely during the pandemic, to ensure voter turnout is not deterred due to not knowing how to participate safely,” she says.
For Jody, a 33-year-old art director, getting time off on Election Day is also a new policy this year. “With long lines and the need for more people to volunteer to become poll workers, our leadership decided that giving us the whole day off was the right decision,” she says. “We also receive eight hours of volunteer time off that can be used for any opportunity of our choice throughout the year. I’m using some of mine to go to poll worker training, and my day off for Election Day to be a poll worker.”
She’s run into problems with voting in-person before. “In the primaries this year, I went to vote at my usual polling place at the end of my block,” she says. “When I got there I was told that my polling place was 25 minutes away. I had waited until the end of the day and didn’t have time to make it to the new location and my meetings.”
Rocquelle, 35, who works in education in Texas, is also enjoying a new Election Day policy at work this year. “For the first time, my employer has made Election Day a school holiday, so we have the whole day off,” she says. She has always been able to vote, but recalls instances when she’s had to wait hours in line. “For the March primary, I got to the poll location just before 6 p.m., arriving straight from work, and it was well after midnight by the time I finally voted.”
But of course, not all employers are recognizing the value of guaranteeing employees have enough paid time off on November 3rd. “We got a nice email from our CEO discussing the importance of voting, and received encouragement to register and vote,” says Chloe, 25, who works at a nonprofit. “But we do not have the day off. I’ll be using vacation time to serve as an election worker.” She remembers not voting once due to lack of time. “The work day had been long, and I would’ve had to travel through intense traffic to potentially not make it in time to the polls,” she says.
“I work in a school in Indiana, and we’re expected to vote before or after work,” says Shannon, 34. “My work will be opening an hour later that day to accommodate people who want to vote before work.” This limited time frame led her to decide against in-person voting on November 3rd, and she has requested an absentee ballot. She explains that because she actually resides in Kentucky, she can vote by mail. But her coworkers who are residents of Indiana can only vote by mail if they qualify under a stricter set of excuses — such as being out of town or having a disability. Concern over COVID-19 is not a valid reason at this time in Indiana, and work is only a valid reason if you’re scheduled to work for the whole period that polls are open.
Still, it’s undeniable that 2020 marks a shift in how workplaces talk about Election Day. Over the past few months, some of the biggest corporations in the U.S. have eagerly announced how they’re giving employees time off to vote. Twitter revealed in late June that, moving forward, Election Day would always be a paid holiday for its workers; all of its U.S. offices will be closed on November 3rd. In July, Apple also said it was giving all of its employees, including retail and hourly employees, up to four hours of paid time off — but, as with many other companies unveiling new policies, did not go so far as to make Election Day a full day off. Uber has said election days would be paid holidays around the world, not just in the U.S. Scott’s Cheap Flights is also making it a paid holiday so its employees can volunteer at the polls. Best Buy is opening its stores two hours later on November 3rd; Walmart’s store employees will get up to three hours of paid time; Pinterest is giving employees 8 hours of paid time for “civic engagement" that doesn’t necessarily have to be used on Election Day. Old Navy is giving store employees up to three hours to vote and paying them to volunteer as poll workers. Facebook also announced it would be giving employees paid time off to work the polls. Some NFL and NBA facilities are being used as voting sites.
Many of these companies are giving paid time off to employees through an initiative called Time To Vote, which was started by Patagonia, PayPal, and Levi Strauss in 2018 as a way to increase voter turnout for the midterm elections. That year, some 400 companies joined Time To Vote and pledged to increase voter turnout among their employees. This year, over 1,100 companies are on board, including Ben & Jerry’s, Capital One, Coach, Dr. Bronner’s, Etsy, Fitbit, Glossier, Google, Instacart, J.Crew, JPMorgan Chase, Lululemon, Lyft, MTV, Nike, Poshmark, Reformation, Rent the Runway, Sephora, Shake Shack, Target, Ulta, Visa, Wells Fargo, and Zillow.
It’s clear that the political unrest of 2020 has contributed to this surge in corporate enthusiasm for getting out the vote; companies have spent much of the year signaling to a skeptical public that they’re committed to doing the right thing — whether in their treatment of COVID-19 essential workers or by showing support for Black Lives Matter. J.J. Huggins, a spokesperson for Patagonia, says that there was a wave of companies becoming interested in Time To Vote after the murder of George Floyd. “People began organically connecting the dots between racial justice and voting, and fortunately people noticed that this program, Time To Vote, was already in existence,” he says.
Time To Vote maintains, however, that it’s strictly non-partisan. It’s careful not to push for any legislation or policy — such as making Election Day a federal holiday, or any of a variety of election reforms that would make voting more accessible without the need for corporate benevolence. While it’s great that companies are encouraging turnout, it’s also clear that this can’t be anything more than a short-term bandaid. Voting is a right, not a generosity gifted to us by our bosses, and we need better ways to hold employers accountable when they’re not feeling generous, or when there isn’t a cultural moment for them to capitalize on. 28 states currently require employers to give some time off to vote, and many of these laws specify that employers only have to give two or three hours. In areas of Georgia, where early in-person voting has begun, some poll places had wait times over nine hours long. What’s more, voting time laws often aren’t properly enforced.
Given this, it’s important to note that some companies participating in Time To Vote may just be fulfilling the minimum number of hours legally required of them rather than being particularly magnanimous. And of course, not every major corporation has publicly announced company-wide policies for time off on November 3rd. This week, thousands of Amazon employees signed an internal petition demanding the company give all of its U.S. employees time off to vote. In a statement to CNBC, Amazon said that individual employees may request time off if they need to.
There’s some inherent queasiness to our ability to vote being cradled in the hands of employers. The idea that it’s professional to keep politics out of the workplace is usually pushed by employers who want to discourage workers from being too vocal, yet it’s more often the employer’s politics that affect the workplace, whether through the CEO’s explicitly shared views or company policies that more subtly perpetuate a political viewpoint. In the leadup to the 2012 elections, there were a slew of well-publicized reports on corporations influencing or demanding that their workers vote for a certain party or policy, even threatening their employees with layoffs if the right candidate didn’t win. And in many states, telling employees who to vote for isn’t strictly illegal — companies have the right to free speech.
Corporations also express their political opinions through expensive lobbying efforts; in fact, the curbing of corporate power is an issue many voters want to see on the ballot box. A company’s voter turnout efforts may be non-partisan, but it shouldn’t obscure our recognition of the other very partisan ways they guide the future of the country. Uber and Lyft, for example, are offering discounted rides to the polls on Election Day — a helpful gesture especially for people whose polling sites aren’t nearby. But in the months leading up to the election, the two rideshare companies have been placing pop-up messages in their apps pushing both drivers and riders to support Proposition 22, a California ballot measure that would exempt rideshare companies from having to treat drivers as employees who would be protected by employment laws, which could spread to other states after California and which some legal experts have called “the most dangerous labor law” of our lifetime. Uber and Lyft, together with DoorDash, Postmates, and Instacart, have spent almost $200 million in their effort to drum up support for Prop 22.
Companies that give employees time off to vote are often seen as “leaders” showing patriotic respect for the democratic process, without much mention of the fact that corporate power shapes our lives very undemocratically — determining whether we make a living wage, have affordable healthcare, or are able to live on the planet at all in the face of a climate crisis. Employers hold incredible power over workers, so much so that some working Americans basically live in modern-day company towns. Any effort that makes it easier for people to vote is a net good, but the reality that so many look to their boss for permission to engage in democracy isn’t exactly a cause for celebration. It is a political lesson, though — another reminder of how urgently we need to shift the balance of power between employees and employers.