Voting is a right, a privilege and a duty. It is also a pain — a time-consuming chore that often requires great patience and unpredictably long waits in line. And for some Americans, those logistical challenges make it nearly impossible.
The U.S. is one of the few democracies in the world where Election Day is not on a weekend or recognized as a federal holiday. Instead, Americans are required to vote on a Tuesday in November, which forces many to choose between exercising their right to vote or earning a day’s pay. The fact that Election Day occurs during a workday disenfranchises many low-wage workers, working parents and others who might not be able to leave work, miss out on paid hours, or find child care in order to cast their ballots.
Add coronavirus into the equation and 2020 is likely to be one of the most daunting elections in history to effectively participate in.
“We want to make sure that we give people the flexibility so that they don’t have to make a choice between being able to earn a paycheck that day or being able to vote.”
To clear the path to the polls this November — and to bump the country’s abysmal voter turnout rates — hundreds of companies including Coca-Cola, Nike, PayPal and Uber are offering employees a paid day off (or other benefits) to encourage voting.
“There’s a recognition that you’ve got to make it easier for people to vote, or at least make sure that they’re not facing an impossible choice,” says Franz Paasche, senior vice president of corporate affairs at PayPal. “We want to make sure that we give people the flexibility so that they don’t have to make a choice between being able to earn a paycheck that day or being able to vote.”
PayPal employees can take four hours of paid time off to go the polls on Election Day, and the company is also encouraging them to volunteer as poll workers.
Along with executives at Patagonia and Levi Strauss & Co., PayPal’s Paasche was one of the organizers of a corporate campaign called Time to Vote, launched ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Now with over 700 member companies — all offering some form of encouragement for their more than 6 million employees to participate in the upcoming election — the non-partisan effort is raising awareness around the importance of elections and citizen participation.
The Time to Vote movement, as well as the other companies taking independent action along similar lines, has set out to address the fact that America’s practice of holding elections on work days contributes to a level of voter participation that is among the lowest in the developed world.
The monumental inconvenience of voting isn’t the only issue. Many states create obstacles for the same low-wage, young, minority voters who already struggle with making it to the polls. These include stringent voter-ID laws that require voters to present documentation more likely to be held by white people, and by making people vote in person rather than by mail — a restriction made all the more urgent by the COVID-19 crisis. But making it easy — or even just possible — for everyone to cast a ballot on Election Day is a vital step toward true enfranchisement.
Why do we vote on a Tuesday in November in the first place? Much like the Electoral College, the day of federal elections is an archaic political hangover that has long been at odds with the modern realities of participatory democracy. Ironically, it was originally devised to make things more convenient and, fittingly, was tailored to the needs of relatively prosperous white men.
Until the middle of the 19th century, states decided when elections were held; the only requirement was that voting had to occur in the 34 days before the first Wednesday in December. This system, while providing great flexibility to individual states, had a serious flaw: Results from states that went first could unduly influence later-voting states and potentially change the outcome of elections. To resolve this problem, in 1845 Congress legally mandated that the Tuesday after the first Monday in November would be America’s national Election Day.
In most states at the time, only property-owning white men were eligible to vote. These men were in large part rural Christian farmers who often had to travel long distances by horseback to get to their polling place. The trip could take a day or more and since Sunday was church day and Wednesday was market day, Congress picked Tuesday as a pragmatic Election Day choice.
America’s then-agrarian economy also explains why early November was selected; harvest would have already concluded and winter not yet fully arrived, so farmers would have both the time and favorable weather to make the journey to the polls.
The custom is laughably out of step with modernity. And now, the COVID-19 crisis has created an urgent need for democratic processes that fit our current circumstances. Yet the barriers to voting keep mounting.
As the primaries demonstrated, many states are unprepared or ill-equipped to handle the steep challenges posed by voting during a pandemic. Republican politicians have taken advantage of the disruption created by coronavirus to escalate voter suppression tactics. For example, in Wisconsin’s primary in April, Republican legislators and judges forced people to vote in person over the objections of Gov. Tony Evers (D), who had issued a statewide stay-at-home order and tried multiple times to postpone the election. Not surprisingly, poll workers feared for their health and 7,000 backed out. As a result, Milwaukee had only five open polling stations, down from 182 in 2016, a situation that disproportionately depressed the Black vote.
For the first time ever, at least three-quarters of Americans will be eligible to vote by mail this fall. However, given the Trump administration’s open hostility towards mail-in ballots and the resulting hobbling of the postal system, many people may not trust that their mail-in vote will be counted and feel forced to cast their ballot in person instead.
In states like Texas — where Republican politicians have successfully fought to deny absentee ballots for those infected with COVID-19 or for those afraid of contracting the disease — voters in the general election will likely have to risk their health and potentially spreading the disease to others in order to exercise their right to vote.
Since voting by mail may not be a reliable or even available option for many Americans during this pandemic, getting time off from work to vote will be all the more crucial for the country to have even the semblance of an equitable and free election in November.
With Election Day just two months away, more companies — both within and independent of the Time to Vote coalition — are announcing policies to enable and encourage voting.
Patagonia will close its retail stores, warehouses and offices on Election Day, as it did in 2016, while paying workers for the day. Uber has also made Nov. 3 a paid company holiday for employees (although notably, that does not include its drivers, whom it does not count as employees), as have Coca-Cola and meal kit service Blue Apron, which has also pledged to help employees pay for transportation to and from the polls.
A number of companies are focusing efforts on promoting civic engagement outside their workforce. Lyft is offering free or discounted rides for people headed to polling stations. Old Navy is giving workers eight paid hours to work at the polls — part of a campaign to fill the poll worker shortage. Snapchat, which registered 450,000 voters through its app in 2018, is working to inform its primarily young users on voting issues. Likewise, Facebook has begun a voter information effort with the goal of registering 4 million voters. Starbucks is adding voter registration info to its customer ordering app.
“I just hope people don’t cite this as a reason to not address the real problem, which is that people cannot vote because they have to work.”
Corporate efforts to get out the vote could certainly improve access to the polls for millions of people, but they can’t make voting safer, restore trust, or fix larger institutional issues — such as systemic voter suppression — that continue to undermine American democracy.
Some voting rights advocates applaud the Time to Vote movement while also worrying that it won’t help many of the low-wage workers, essential workers and others who most need help casting a ballot.
“What is glaring to me is all the people left out,” said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president of the U.S. Vote Foundation. “There are all the homemakers, the school teachers, the public service workers, retail workers of every stripe and federal employees who won’t be included in this. Time to Vote is great but it definitely feels like a drop in the bucket.”
Another concern is that fanfare over companies’ pro-voting announcements may inadvertently shift the focus away from the government’s core duty to ensure that its citizens have universal access to polls, letting politicians off the hook.
“It takes the pressure off,” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “I just hope people don’t cite this as a reason to not address the real problem, which is that people cannot vote because they have to work. I would really like to see these organizations band together to lobby Congress to make Election Day a holiday.”
For Corley Kenna, communications head at Patagonia, exercising corporate responsibility is bigger than declaring a company holiday — it can be a lever for change.
“More and more CEOs and other business leaders are recognizing the need for capitalism to evolve and that includes really fundamentally caring about people, not just profit,” said Kenna. “What we’re ultimately trying to do with Time to Vote is to contribute to the larger culture shift that’s needed to increase voter participation in our elections.”
CORRECTION: Federal statutes mandate that Election Day falls on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, not the first Tuesday of the month, as this piece originally stated.
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