Debra Cleaver, the founder of Vote.org, says that it made sense to have federal elections on a Tuesday back in the mid-1800s, when Congress determined that it was a convenient day for Sabbath-observing farmers to make a trip into town. But she believes that scheduling decision has become an impediment for democracy, making it harder for workers to cast votes and contributing to America’s relatively low voter turnout compared to other countries.
That is why her organization is launching an initiative this year that asks companies to give workers at least two hours of paid time off for Election Day. “There are a lot of people who can’t just take two hours off of work,” Cleaver says. “No one should have to choose between work, or money, and voting. It’s an unfair burden.” At the time of the launch, officially planned for March 13, companies that have signed on include Pinterest, Dropbox, Asana and a handful of other businesses.
About 56% of the voting-age population cast a ballot in the 2016 election, and the second most popular reason Americans gave for not voting was being too busy or having a scheduling conflict. In the most recent midterm elections, more than a quarter of those who could have voted but did not said that being too busy was the reason.
Cleaver is far from the first person to point out that Tuesdays can be inconvenient times for getting to the polls. Politicians such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have called for the government to make Election Day a federal holiday in the hopes of removing barriers to voting. (His plan was to name this occasion “Democracy Day.”) But critics have argued that the holiday solution presents problems: Even if those proposals were to gain traction in Congress, people who work retail or service industry jobs — at places that don’t typically shut down for such holidays — might find themselves even busier than usual as they catered to those who did get a day off.
Going straight to companies, Cleaver says, is a more direct and potentially fruitful path. “The best people to make Election Day a holiday are business leaders,” she says. Vote.org’s initiative was inspired by a similar business-focused effort in 2016 aptly called “Take Off Election Day.” Backed by venture capitalist Hunter Walk (who is supporting the Vote.org initiative and has signed up his firm Homebrew), the campaign inspired hundreds of companies to give their workers time for exercising civic duties in November. But many enlistees were Silicon Valley tech firms rather than a representative cross-section of American industry.
Vote.org, a non-profit based in San Francisco, has started by enlisting nearby tech companies, too. “We have to build momentum somewhere,” Cleaver says. She sees socially conscious tech firms as leaders that will inspire others to follow and notes that they are an easier sell, especially at the outset, than the likes of Wal-Mart. One tactic her team is using to reach other sectors of the economy and areas of the country is talking to unions. Though such groups might have a hard time negotiating an additional day off work in their contracts, she says, they can propose to have Election Day off rather than a holiday like Columbus Day or President’s Day. So far, she says says the idea has gotten “a very warm reception.”
The businesses who have signed on as of launch, Cleaver says, tend to have leaders who think voting is important. Companies might also sign on for the good publicity, especially if peer pressure grows, given that consumers increasingly expect companies to stand for something as well as sell something. Vote.org plans to work with Change.org in getting consumers to push petitions that ask companies to join the movement. Cleaver argues that even if CEOs aren’t moved by the democratic spirit, they can be convinced that helping to increase turnout is good for a stable business environment, because “radical” candidates tend to do better when fewer people vote.
The team behind the initiative is under no illusion that getting the day off would be a cure-all, even if every company in American signed on. There are plenty of other reasons people don’t vote: being out of town, not having transportation to get to the polls, not being interested. The most popular reason voters gave for not voting in 2016, according to U.S. Census data, was not liking the candidates or the campaign issues.
Vote.org, which launched in 2016, is pursuing additional efforts that will target other hurdles in the midterms, like the fact that people forget to vote or are not registered. The organization has registered about 260,000 new voters over the past two years, while putting up billboards and sending texts that remind people to go to the polls. This year, the organization is especially focused on turning first-time voters into second-time voters, Cleaver says, aiming to turn voting into a “lifelong habit” for more Americans.
The get-out-the-vote organization is nonpartisan, but Cleaver acknowledges that its underlying mission is a “progressive” one: America’s electorate skews white and old and rich, and Vote.org aims to make sure it better reflects America’s demographics. She says neither Republicans nor Democrats have shown enough interest in growing the electorate or making it more diverse, leading to a situation where politicians are accountable to fewer voters than they should be.
“We help everyone vote,” Cleaver says. And she’s betting businesses will too. “Social change,” she says, “needs to start somewhere.”