Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” With the US midterm elections taking place today, it is important to recognize that voting is a fundamental human right. However, it is a right that remains out of reach for many around the world, including many people here in the US.
While journalists, election officials, public servants and others all have clear roles to play in supporting free and fair elections, the private sector’s role is no less critical. Not only can companies help to ensure that the right to vote is upheld, they can also benefit from strong voting protections. Where the conditions that form the foundations of democracy are strong, economies and businesses flourish. Democracies help businesses make long-term investments with more confidence, and ensure that laws – including those pertaining to contracts and anti-bribery and anti-corruption – are enforced. It is, therefore, in the best interest of businesses to support sustainable democracies. And, indeed, a significant opportunity may be found in the right to vote.
Based on our experience advising companies on their human rights responsibilities, including as it relates to voting, Article One recommends companies take the following steps.
1. Provide paid time off to vote
Election day is not a federal holiday in the United States, and the lack of paid leave is a common barrier for voters casting their ballots in-person or returning absentee ballots. This is especially the case for hourly workers, who may have less flexibility in their work schedules and, oftentimes, cannot afford to lose work hours. A bill to ensure that workers have paid voting leave nationwide has stalled in Congress, and as such, rules currently vary from state to state. Absent a federal holiday or legally mandated time off (paid or not), it falls on employers to ensure workers have sufficient time and resources to vote.
Providing paid time off to vote not only sets a precedent for ongoing participation in the electoral process, but contributes positively to employee relations, retention, and recruitment. One poll found that 82% of Americanswould view a company more favorably if it supported policies to make it easier for everyone to vote and register to vote. Subsequently, it has not taken long for businesses to recognize the benefits and relatively low cost of adopting such policies. The Time to Vote Campaign, a business-led coalition aimed at getting companies to pledge to provide their workers with voting leave, either paid or unpaid, currently has 2,000+ members signed up, including PepsiCo, Best Buy, Dell Technologies, Walmart, and PayPal.
2. Connect employees to volunteer opportunities
Companies can provide employees with the tools and resources to find election volunteer opportunities. They can also offer paid volunteer hours to all employees who serve as poll workers.
This support is more necessary than ever, as the US is facing a shortage of election volunteer. Vet the Vote, found that 130,000 poll workers have stopped serving over the past three midterm elections – likely due to a combination of COVID-19 health risks and increasing threats and harassment. Employers, therefore, not only need to provide information about election volunteer opportunities, but also need to provide relevant resources to ensure their employees’ safety, including knowledge of how to effectively report incidents of threats and harassment.
3. Leverage products and services to expand voting access
Over the years, we have seen an increasing number of companies, particularly in technology, media, and entertainment, creatively leverage their platforms and products to exercise the right to vote. For instance, Spotify has been driving its listeners to a custom resource hub created by HeadCount that utilizes BallotReady and TurboVote tools to help them learn what’s on the ballot and make a plan to vote. Lyft and Uber are offering free or highly discounted lifts to the polls on Election Day. Finally, Snapchat, which has proven to be an important connector to younger audiences, launched an in-app tool that helps guide users through the voter registration process.
It’s clear that that there are many innovative ways that businesses today can use their products to promote civic engagement, and with millions of users in their networks, the power of these campaigns should not be underestimated.
4. Address adverse impacts of business models
Outside of spreading election awareness, encouraging participation, and implementing appropriate policies, businesses should also evaluate their own business models, and whether they have adverse impacts on election integrity.
A good example is the role of social media in both promoting voter participation and playing a role in the amplification of election related mis/disinformation. Despite ongoing efforts from these companies, one analysis found that mentions of a “stolen election” and “voter fraud” have increased in recent months and are now two of the three most popular terms included in this year’s election discussion. Harmful claims that circulate on these platforms can also lead to electoral violence, including intimidation and threats.
Responding to these risks can help companies to ensure that their products do not adversely impact civic engagement in elections. YouTube, for example, limits the targeting of election ads to age, gender, and zip code. This helps the company address concerns about privacy and the potential exploitation of voters through micro-targeting.
5. Lobby responsibly
Companies have a powerful role to play in promoting and expanding legal protections for voting. In July 2021, for example, a number of businesses signed a joint letter to Congress in support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, recognizing the need both to restore safeguards against voting discrimination and ensure transparency and accountability for changes to state election laws.
At the same time, there has been an increased focus on discrepancies between the stated commitments of some companies and their actions with respect to corporate lobbying, political spending, and other forms of corporate influence. For instance, after the US Capitol insurrection, many companies pledged to make changes to their political donations. Some pledged to withhold PAC funding to the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the election, while others promised to reevaluate their giving criteria. However, only a few leading companies – including Microsoft, Airbnb, and Cisco – followed through on these promises. Companies should ensure that any of their corporate lobbying decisions do not conflict with their commitments to voting rights.
Restoring social trust in civic and democratic institutions in the US will not happen overnight and requires active engagement from all members of society. States have an outsized role to play, but businesses need to ensure that their business models, employee policies, and lobbying practices do not undermine democracy.
If you have any questions about how best to evaluate and integrate these recommendations into your company’s social responsibility strategy, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.