(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)
How many eligible voters in the United States actually cast their ballot in the 2016 presidential elections? The answer is pretty astounding: it’s anywhere between 55% and 58%, depending on who’s doing the research.
That means that about 138 million Americans out of an approximate 238 million eligible voters cast their vote. Which means that 100 million people who had the right to vote, didn’t. So why didn’t they vote? There are many reasons but the biggest reason, according to a 2006 survey done by Pew Research is simply time. People are busy. They’re at work. They have to rush home to take care of their families. They have other obligations. Voting takes time.
So shouldn’t employers, regardless of size, help? Yes, you should. Even if you’re a small business. You should be giving your workers time off during the day to vote. And yes, you should be paying them.
Federal law doesn’t require you to do this. But 29 states mandate that companies give their employees time off to vote and 22 require that the time be compensated. Eighteen of those states require advance notice to take time off to vote, and five of them require proof after an employee has voted. What’s the rule in your state? A great summary is provided by the law firm Mathew & George here.
Regardless of each state’s requirements, what do small business owners around the country plan to do on election day? According to a new survey released by Square and Wakefield Research, approximately 76% of us do plan to give our employees time off to vote and 83% of those employers will pay their people to do so. A quarter (26%) of small business owners are actually going so far as to make it a company-wide holiday on election day.
Big brands like Old Navy, Target and Warby Parker are literally paying their employees not only to vote, but to work at polling places on election day. That’s because more poll workers than ever are needed in light of the health risks caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
If you own a small company I don’t think you have to go to that extreme. You still have a business to run and people don’t need an entire day off just to cast their vote. You probably also don’t have the money to pay people to work the polls.
So here’s what you should do, in my opinion. You should, regardless of the state you’re in, allow your employees to leave for a period of time during election day and vote. You should ask your employees to give advanced notice to your human resources person and get approval from their supervisor so as not to just abruptly disappear. You should give your employees a time limit on their absence – I think three hours is more than reasonable and probably overkill. But don’t quibble about this. Treat them like adults. They know what their responsibilities are and your good employees will want to make sure their work still gets done. Well, at least most of them.
You shouldn’t tell your employees who to vote for. You shouldn’t be sharing with your employees who you’re voting for. None of that is their concern, nor their business. You shouldn’t be promoting any particular political candidate in your business. You shouldn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable for who they support. You shouldn’t make anyone feel awkward if they choose not to vote. That’s up to them and all you’re doing is giving them the opportunity. You’re running a business, not a cult. What you say about politics is irrelevant.
We are among the world’s largest democracies and yet voter turnout is higher in at least 25 countries than us, including Estonia, Slovakia and Belgium (which has the highest turnout at 87%). That’s embarrassing. As small business owners and employers we have a role to play in changing this. We employ more than half of the workers in this country. So give your employees the time off they need. Communicate your actions right away. Make it a big deal. Because it is. You’re doing everything you can to promote a fair and positive election.