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On Election Day, many Americans opt not to vote because they are unable to take time away from work to cast a ballot — but it shouldn’t be that way, writes Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Eric Orts in this opinion piece. Orts is co-editor of The Moral Responsibility of Firms and will be teaching a new course on “Business, Law, and Democracy” next semester.
Business has a political responsibility to encourage employees to vote. Despite the fact that the United States is the largest, most powerful and longest continuously existing democracy in the world, many Americans do not vote. In 2016, only 60% of eligible voters cast ballots, even in a divisive year with a presidential election at the top of the ticket. In the last midterm election in 2014, turnout was even worse. Only 37% of eligible citizens voted.
Two reasons given by many people for not voting is that they either do not have time or cannot get to the polls. These excuses are often plausible. Many people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, and Americans tend to work long hours. Polling places are being closed, such as in Dodge City, Kansas. Some states allow for easy voting options, including early voting and no-excuse-needed absentee ballots. Several states have moved entirely to voting-by-mail. Many citizens, including those in a few big states such as New York and Pennsylvania, however, do not have these options. On Election Day, many Americans face a time crunch as well as conflicting loyalties: to job or to country.
“On Election Day, many Americans face a time crunch as well as conflicting loyalties: to job or to country.”
Business can help. For example, more than 300 business firms, including a number of large enterprises, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Levi Strauss, Southwest Airlines, Tyson Foods, and Walmart, have joined a movement called Time to Vote. These companies have committed to encouraging their employees to vote “through programs such as paid time off, a no meetings workday, and resources for mail-in ballots and early voting.” A report by the Society for Human Resource Management finds that about 44% of companies will provide some sort of paid time off option for employees to vote this year, an increase of 37% over last year. (Note that many states provide a right to vote to employees — just as they provide a right to respond to jury duty — but employees are naturally reluctant to assert it.) More business firms — especially small businesses, which employ the vast majority of people — should join the pro-voting movement. It’s easy: Just encourage employees on Election Day to vote — and make it convenient for them to do so.
Some companies go further and have declared company holidays on Election Day. Patagonia, for example, began in 2016 to give employees the day off on Election Day to vote and otherwise engage in politics. Since 1999, employees at Chrysler, Ford and General Motors have had Election Day off as a benefit under collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the United Automobile Workers union. More companies should join this trend voluntarily as well, and they might consider lobbying for the establishment of a new national Citizens Day. (According to a recent survey by The New York Times, the U.S. is 20th in voter participation among the largest 25 national democracies. Eleven of the top 12 performers have either a national holiday for voting or hold elections on weekends.)
Another way that companies can support voting is to provide transportation to the polls at reduced rates or for free. Lyft announced half-price discounts to voters on Election Day, and free rides to voters who need help through partnerships with several nonprofit organizations. Uber has also joined partnerships to drive turnout (pun intended) by providing free transportation to the polls through partnerships with #Vote Together and Democracy Works. Uber added a Get to the Polls button on its app to enable voters to both find and get a ride to their polling places. Other employers can leverage these opportunities by spreading the word about the transportation options offered by Lyft and Uber, making it clear that employees are encouraged to take time off to go vote. In most cases, this would mean less than an hour or two of lost work time.
Business scholars have increasingly identified political responsibility as a moral obligation for business in different contexts. In this election and going forward, business firms of all types should recognize that many citizens face impediments to voting based on time and transportation limitations. Recognizing that free enterprise depends on a healthy democracy, businesses should help to make voting easy and convenient for their employees — in this and future elections.