Most states require that employers give employees time off to vote, but that time is not always guaranteed to be paid. Voting days are not federal holidays in the United States.
Although the majority of Democrats and Republicans in a 2018 survey supported making Election Day a national holiday, numerous congressional efforts have faltered. In 2019, when House Democrats introduced legislation to designate the day as a federal holiday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) called the bill a “power grab.” So far, no federal bills creating a holiday have passed into law.
In the absence of such a law, multiple states including Virginia, Indiana and Delaware make Election Day in November a paid holiday for state employees. This past week, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) signed legislation to make Election Day a state holiday for employees of all government offices except election authorities and employees in K-12 schools and some post-secondary schools.
There are also a growing number of companies granting paid time off beyond what state law mandates. Patagonia and Levi Strauss give staff paid time off for employees to vote, and in recent weeks, Twitter and some sports organizations including the NCAA, Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves have all given their workers paid time off to vote. The Grizzlies are now giving paid time off not only for national elections, but for local elections, too.
Maybe your business will soon join them? Here’s what you need to know about the benefits and limitations of a paid Election Day, plus what you can do if you do enjoy the privilege of taking paid time off to vote.
Flexibility to vote can help address disparities in who gets to vote.
For too many people, voting results in hours of lost time. In June, thousands of Georgia voters waited up to seven hours in lines that stretched for blocks during the state’s presidential primary, forcing some people to leave without voting.
“Black Americans were about 74% more likely to wait more than 30 minutes to vote than their white counterparts.”
Long voting wait times disproportionately impact Black Americans, according to a 2019 study that analyzed voting wait times across a nationwide sample of polling places during the 2016 presidential election.
Economists Keith Chen, Kareem Haggag, Devin Pope and Ryne Rohla used anonymized cellphone location data to determine that polling places where the vast majority of registered voters are Black experience 29% longer wait times relative to white-majority polling places. Black Americans were about 74% more likely to wait more than 30 minutes to vote than their white counterparts.
Chen told HuffPost that the number of people arriving to polling places spikes between 8 and 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. These spikes are more pronounced for polling places where a majority of Black registered voters cast ballots, suggesting, “on average, that African Americans face less flexibility in being able to take time off of work in order to vote,” Chen said. This tracks with data that shows only 8% of Black professionals hold white-collar jobs, at which employees are more likely to enjoy flexibility to leave work for civic engagement like voting.
Before and after work hours, heavily Black polling places see greater wait times, which also suggests systematically fewer resources like voting machines and poll workers, Chen said.
“That also suggests that to the degree that time off would allow African Americans to spread out when they would vote ― not have to vote right before work or after work ― that also suggests that holidays presumably allow more African Americans to vote,” Chen said. “It also suggests that spreading out when they could vote throughout the day would reduce racial disparities.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, adding flexibility and reducing congestion at polling places is not only a racial justice issue, it’s a matter of public health.
“Anything we can do to reduce those lines, especially in the middle of a pandemic when lines are not just an inconvenience but potentially a life-threatening danger, I think it behooves us to pay attention to that,” Chen said. “It’s really bad in a country that promises to be a democracy.”
Why neither companies nor individuals should stop at paid time off.
“Just making it a state or national holiday does not solve all the problems of why people don’t vote.”
Simply giving employees time off is not going to solve voter participation, however, said Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Spread the Vote.
“It’s great that states are thinking about it, but they have to think through everything. Are they thinking about childcare? Are they thinking about transportation? Are they thinking about people who have disabilities?” Calvin said. “Just making it a state or national holiday does not solve all the problems of why people don’t vote.“
Inadequate polling places and issues with voting equipment are a government-made problem that should not be the responsibility of any one corporation or individual to fix. But for companies who want to help increase civic engagement on election days, Calvin recommended first conducting an internal survey of what specific voting barriers employees may be facing. Part of this work is seeing what is preventing employees’ families from voting, too. Calvin said a question employers can ask themselves is, “How are we making sure that it’s not just our employees that can vote, but also their communities and their families?”
Anticipating long lines is one small help. If employers are going to give employees paid time off to vote, they should give a full day, because “we just don’t know what’s going to happen at [someone’s] polling place,” Calvin said.
Getting the time and access you need to vote should not be a luxury, but in the United States it is. If you do have the privilege of paid time off from your job to vote, you can use it to give back to your community. “Vote in the morning, drive people to the polls in the afternoon,” Calvin said. “There’s so many things that you can do. Every community has organizations, or churches, or someone who is trying to help people vote.”