Just weeks away from a contentious presidential election amid a pandemic, Baltimore-area companies are joining corporate America’s growing movement to boost voter engagement.
Employers such as Under Armour, CareFirst/Blue Cross Blue Shield and DTLR have launched election-related campaigns in recent weeks aimed at their employees and customers.
At a time of heightened political friction and concerns about election integrity, businesses are pushing a simple message — get out and vote, work the polls or otherwise get involved in democracy, no matter your ideology. Employers are taking steps from sponsoring voter registration events to making Election Day a corporate holiday.
“We don’t care who you’re voting for — that’s not our business,” said Jeffrey Bowden, executive vice president of people and culture at urban apparel chain DTLR. “But we do want you to educate yourselves on how easy it is. People are disillusioned.”
The companies are acting in the absence of a national holiday for voting, for which some, including congressional Democrats, are advocating. States including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, New York and Virginia have made Election Day a holiday for state employees. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found 65% of Americans favored making Election Day a national holiday, including 71% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans.
The argument goes that a holiday would increase voter turnout, but opponents warn of its impact on economic activity. Lately, some Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have said that more people voting might not be good for their party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the Democrats' proposal a “power grab.”
But the businesses just want to encourage people to participate.
Hanover-based DTLR’s “Dare to Vote” campaign focuses on boosting voter turnout in underprivileged communities through registration events in its U.S. stores. In the three weeks before Maryland’s Oct. 13 advance registration deadline, Bowden said, the chain’s community outreach workers used tablets or paper forms to register hundreds of people in the Baltimore area and likely thousands chainwide.
“We have authentic relationships with the community and can cross barriers and have discussions in a personal way,” Bowden said. Customers are drawn to “people that look like them and act like them and dress like them. They can put down their guard and talk about what’s going on."
Under Armour’s “Run to Vote” initiative, unveiled last month, aims to increase turnout by linking employees, customers and athletes with polling and mail-in ballot information. The Baltimore-based sports apparel maker is giving workers paid time off to vote and additional time off if they volunteer at the polls.
“We don’t care who you’re voting for — that’s not our business. But we do want you to educate yourselves on how easy it is. People are disillusioned.”— Jeffrey Bowden, executive vice president of people and culture at urban apparel chain DTLR
The brand’s athlete endorsers have pitched in, with basketball star Stephen Curry, sprinter Natasha Hastings and soccer player Kelley O’Hara taking to Instagram to urge followers to vote.
And CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield joined The Coca-Cola Co. and Twitter when it made Nov. 3 a paid holiday for its workers. CareFirst, which has 5,300 workers in Maryland, Washington, Virginia and West Virginia, said Election Day will be a paid day off from now on in presidential election years. The health insurer will give employees an additional eight hours of paid time off for civic engagement in nonpresidential years.
Coca-Cola announced its paid Election Day holiday in August, with the company’s general counsel Monica Howard Douglas saying the decision came in response to feedback from workers. She said that supporting employees' right to vote “is fundamental to the strength of our democracy and the cause of free and fair elections.”
Twitter announced in June that it would give its U.S. employees a paid day off for Election Day.
“Our responsibility as good corporate citizens is to ensure our associates, members and the communities where we live and work are fully equipped and able to exercise these [voting] rights,” said Brian D. Pieninck, CareFirst’s president and CEO, in an announcement this month.
The health insurer came up with the idea after hearing about shortages of poll volunteers, as the typically elderly volunteers are staying home because of concerns about the virus, said Angela Celestin, CareFirst’s chief human resource officer.
With a day off, she said, employees who hadn’t volunteered in the past might think about it, while those who opt to vote in person can stand in line without having to worry about work.
“This goes beyond voting,” Celestin said. “It’s about civic engagement and how we all must stay involved.”
That’s the right message for corporations to be sending at a time of intense division over politics, said John Michel, an associate professor of management for Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business and Management.
“It’s good that companies are making this a central issue for their employees to participate,” Michel said. “This all plays into the idea that we live in a democracy and we should all participate.”
About 58% of the voting age population turned out for the 2016 presidential election.
This year, 700 companies have signed on with Time to Vote, a nonpartisan movement started two years ago by Patagonia, Levi Strauss and PayPal to increase voter participation in elections.
The coalition says voter turnout in the U.S. remains relatively low compared with other developed nations because people say they are too busy or have to work. The group asks employers to offer time off to vote, though not all are giving a full day off.
Some of the recent companies to sign on include Bethesda-based Discovery Inc., Bank of America, Nike, Lego Systems Inc., Tyson Foods and Visa. Under Armour and DTLR also are members.
This year, the group says, the stakes are higher with challenges from the pandemic as well as protests that have sparked a national reckoning over social injustice, including how communities of color are affected disproportionately by voter suppression.
Employers have been slowly shifting from offering unpaid time to paid time off to vote, Michel said.
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A survey released Wednesday by the Society for Human Resource Management found more than half of human resource managers polled said their organization would offer paid time off to vote.
“Now what we’re seeing companies doing is shutting down or providing a two-hour window to allow people to vote while maintaining benefits and pay,” Michel said. “That support provides people with both the messaging and the support that, ‘It’s OK to go do this. I’m not going to be punished or not seen as a good organizational player.’”
He expects the movement to be effective in boosting voter turnout, especially as larger companies with more employees get involved. For the companies, such initiatives build brand awareness but more importantly, he said, offering such benefits can go a long way toward building a committed workforce.
“If you look at companies that believe in social responsibility, doing this makes a difference in who applies, who stays committed and how hard they work,” Michel said.
At DTLR, which runs 240 stores in 19 states, the voter registration campaign targeted workers as well as customers, offering information about how and where to vote, and how to allow for potentially long waits if voting in person. The chain has spearheaded similar initiatives for past elections, including midterms and local races.
This year, the chain also hosted “Run, Ride & Register” events in Baltimore, Atlanta and Miami at the end of September with the help of running and bicycle clubs. It mixed voter registration with an 11-mile run and ride through each of the cities.
“Voting is one of our pillars,” Bowden said, along with the notion that “you have a right to vote. ... You can make a difference, and voting is one of many ways."