Companies join forces to drive US electorate to the polls

Corporate America is throwing its weight behind a host of get-out-the-vote efforts before November’s presidential election, as fears grow that the pandemic and voter suppression efforts will limit turnout. 

Hundreds of companies have pledged to give employees time off to vote on election day, casting themselves as leading “a civic renaissance” as they lobby to make early voting more widespread. 

They have been at pains to portray their initiatives as non-partisan at a moment when once routine ballot access proposals have become politicised. Donald Trump, who voted by post before becoming president, tweeted last month that “Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations [sic] history”.

Studies dispute the idea that early voting benefits one party over another. But Mr Trump has complained that under Democrats’ proposals to fund more postal and early voting “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again”.

More than 550 companies, from Deloitte to Walmart, have joined the Time to Vote campaign, which Patagonia and Levi Strauss launched before the 2018 midterms and which hopes to have 1,000 members by election day. 

“Companies are more willing to step up and join [this year]; they recognise the magnitude of what’s at stake . . . at all levels of government,” Chip Bergh, Levi’s chief executive, told the Financial Times. Employees needed time off to vote because polls are crowded outside normal working hours, he said: “They see a line around the building and they say I’m never going to make it to work on time . . . and they don’t vote.”

“In 2016 [only 56 per cent] of the people who were eligible voted in the presidential election and without getting into political commentary we got what we got as a result of that,” he added.

Steven Levine, director of Civic Alliance, another non-partisan group working to boost turnout, said 86 companies with 2m employees had signed up since it launched in January, including Amazon, Starbucks and Target.

“Companies are realising that the most powerful way they can align their values and the country’s values to those of their employees and customers is by encouraging their employees and customers to vote,” he said.

“We’re seeing, I think, a real civic renaissance when it comes to companies coming to the table” because employees were pushing their bosses to support causes they care about, he said. 

Lauren Kunis, programme director of National Voter Registration Day, said he expected the campaign to register a record number of people this year thanks to backing from companies including Facebook and Google.

Joey Wozniak, project director of Vote Early Day, said it had similarly doubled its goal of signing up 50 launch partners, with support from companies including Discovery and Gap.

“It’s a way for [companies] to demonstrate their commitment to social impact in a non-partisan way,” Mr Kunis said, pointing to the power companies such as Twitter and Starbucks have to share voting information online, in stores and with their own employees.

Time to Vote members wrote to the leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives in May, urging them to make voting by mail available to all eligible voters and to open polling locations at least two weeks early. 

“Our responsibility is not just to our employees, customers, and communities — it is also to our country,” they wrote, spelling out how executives have come to see democratic participation as a business issue. 

Recent protests over racial injustice have also highlighted the growing pressure from employees and consumers for brands to play a greater civic role as they pledge to respond to a wider set of stakeholders.

“In 2016 the predominant outlook from companies when it came to voter participation efforts was that it was too political,” Mr Levine said, but “we’ve seen more and more companies come to the realisation that voting is civic, it’s not political. They’re not taking a stand on any controversial issue. We’re not talking about gay marriage; we’re not talking about abortion. We’re talking about voting.”

CEOs’ concerns over turnout have been sharpened by the pandemic, which has led to a fall-off in voter registration figures compared with 2016, long waits to vote and allegations of voter suppression in states which have closed many of their usual polling places, often in black and Hispanic neighbourhoods.

One poll found that 40 per cent of Democrats and 6 per cent of Republicans in battleground states would feel uncomfortable voting in person.

Mr Bergh said voter suppression concerns informed Levi’s decision to join an advertiser boycott of Facebook. “The reason we jumped into that, aside from all the hate speech that is out there, is the misinformation and some of the voter suppression issues which Facebook can shut down if they change their algorithms,” he said.

The social network has vowed to crack down on posts designed to mislead people about voting but Mr Bergh said: “I don’t think we’re going to go back to Facebook until they really address these issues.”

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