We often look to political parties, nonprofit organizations, or politically engaged celebrities to raise awareness about important public policy issues. But there’s another place we should look to for leadership, a place with a proven track-record in shifting cultural attitudes and helping to solve social problems.
That place is 21st-century corporate America.
Over the past month, we have increasingly seen corporate America use its influence to promote voter engagement. This is a pivotal role for companies communicating with American consumers every day. Low civic participation is one of the most profound challenges we face in the U.S.: In the 2016 election, it is estimated that 231 million Americans were eligible to vote, yet only 60% of them cast a ballot. These potential voters have strong opinions and are ready to make themselves heard—they just need a little help getting to the polls. From Patagonia to Gap to Lyft to Walmart, the brands we know and trust are providing exactly this help and making civic participation a priority.
So what can your company do to get involved? Well, to start, companies need to lower barriers to participation. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every organization, but allowing employees time off to vote is crucial to increasing voter turnout. Smaller companies may only be able to give their employees a few hours off, but larger organizations have either made Election Day a corporate holiday or a flexible “no meetings” day to allow their people to get to the polls. Companies have the power to make voting part of the corporate culture by creating positive social pressure to participate.
Lowering barriers goes beyond time off, though. It is important to remember that we live in a country where voting laws vary by state and the rules can be confusing. According to a 2012 poll of young voters, only 13% had an accurate understanding of their state’s voter registration deadline. And four in 10 Americans say they know either very little or nothing about candidates running in their districts, with that number jumping to six in 10 for voters between 18 and 29.
To turn more potential voters into actual voters, companies can direct employees to voter registration and absentee ballot application sites like TurboVote.org and Vote.org, polling place location sites like GetToThePolls.com, and sites providing key election deadlines and information on how to vote like HowTo.Vote.
Sharing this kind of information and creating a positive buzz about an upcoming election can also help demystify the process, make it less intimidating, and generally increase people’s interest in participating. Studies show that creating a pro-voting environment encourages civic participation and helps make voting a cultural norm, especially among young people. For example, a 2007 study showed that voter participation had a sizable increase at polling locations that held a social party outside the polling location.
There are plenty of ways for companies to easily make voting a cultural norm. Including voter registration with employment forms for new hires makes civic participation part of the company culture right from the start. Hosting events around key civic milestones, like debate watch parties or voter turnout competitions, fosters a sense of community. Encouraging voter participation via social media on key dates like National Voter Registration Day is an easy way to extend a civic responsibility ethos to customers—going beyond just the employees at a company.
Fostering a strong democratic culture is something every company can do, whether they’re a small business with five employees or a Fortune 500 company with 500,000 employees—it’s just a question of how.
Initiatives like the Civic Responsibility Project are working to make it easier for more companies to figure that out and get involved, providing them with toolkits to encourage voter registration, information on how to register to vote, and communications strategies for promoting employee and customer voting this November. This effort, and others like TurboVote Challenge and ElectionDay.org, are nonpartisan and complement existing initiatives like Time to Vote, Walmart’s Community Votes, and Lyft’s Ride to Vote.
We hope that corporate America will build upon what it has already done this year to shift attitudes about voting and increase participation in the years ahead, and we hope we can be a part of its efforts to do so. Our democracy is only as strong as the engagement of its citizens, and it is a testament to our corporate culture that companies are committed to making it stronger than ever.
Ashley Spillane is the adviser to the Civic Responsibility Project and the former president of Rock the Vote. She serves as an adviser to the Institute of Politics at Harvard University and is an advisory board member at the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service.