Some Workers Get Time Off to Vote. Others Don’t. Here’s Why.
It’s a common refrain around election time in the United States: Voter turnout here is exceptionally low, and many other developed democracies consistently manage to do better.
There are various reasons for that, including general disillusionment, laws that disenfranchise people and restrictive identification requirements.
And in some cases there is another, more practical reason: People just can’t find the time to get to a polling place.
According to a United States Census Bureau survey of about 19 million registered voters who did not vote in the 2016 general election, 14.3 percent — about 2.7 million people — cited busy schedules as a main reason. (The top reasons were that people were not interested or didn’t like the candidates or issues on the ballot.)
Would it help if more people could get time off from work on Election Day? And if so, is this the responsibility of the federal government, state legislatures or private companies?
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Ashley Spillane, the founder of the consulting firm Impactual and the former president of Rock the Vote, worked on turnout across the country and had to operate by a different set of rules every time she crossed state lines.
“I think it would be great to get a little more standardization, because it’s true that we are a country that has very different election laws state by state,” she said.
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Most states posit that employees should have some time off to vote, and some specify a certain amount of time, like two or three consecutive hours while polling places are open. (But even that does not necessarily mean employees will get time off, since many workers could find that time before or after their shifts.)
Some states, like California, Minnesota and Maryland, say that if employees need to take time off to vote, employers should pay them as long as they meet certain conditions; others, like Georgia, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, do not mandate such payment. Some states allow early voting more than a month in advance; others allow one or two weeks. In a few states, including Connecticut, Alabama and Kentucky, there is no early voting at all. (Absentee ballots are still an option, but states vary — again — in how strictly those are regulated.)
And in some places, people don’t even need to deal with voting booths. Residents can have their ballots mailed to them in states such as Oregon, Colorado and Washington. (This can work wonders for turnout; in Oregon, the number of registered voters who vote, including in midterm elections, regularly exceeds 70 percent.)
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What if we just move the day?
With such a patchwork of policies, are there any blanket solutions that could make it easier for all Americans to get to the polls?
For example: What if we simply reschedule the vote altogether?
Election Day takes place on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November because of a law passed in 1845, when the economy was much more agrarian and much less nine-to-five.
Proponents of a rescheduled vote argue that weekend voting would be more convenient for today’s workers, though sporadic legislative efforts to make that change have so far faltered. Similarly, some say voting day — whenever it falls — should be a federal holiday.
Critics of those ideas say that they won’t help the people who still have to clock in on weekends and holidays — such as retail, hospital or food service employees — and that they could effectively skew turnout in favor of white-collar workers, who already vote more than other groups.
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That might be addressed with a federal holiday provision mandating that all employees have several hours of paid time off on voting day, said Adam Bonica, an elections expert and associate professor of political science at Stanford University.
And given the long history of low electoral turnout in the United States, he added, any legislative change that could increase access to the polls should be considered.
“We should do all of the above,” he said. “We should have an Election Day holiday, early voting, absentee voting and voting by mail for anyone who wants to vote that way. All of these things are completely feasible and doable. It just takes the political will.”
Can private companies promote democracy?
When state laws give little or no guidance about time off for Election Day, the decisions often fall to employers themselves. And in many cases, good publicity is an incentive for companies to encourage voting.
“This is a pretty simple thing for companies to do,” Mr. Bonica said. “And at a time when corporate profits are basically at a record high and companies just got a massive tax cut, the least they can do is make sure that our democracy is well served.”
The approaches vary from one company to the next. Patagonia, whose executive leaders have promoted environmental causes and criticized President Trump, said it would close all its retail stores nationwide on Nov. 6 and give employees paid time off, as it did in 2016. Walmart, the biggest private employer in the United States, said it was “empowering our associates and customers with voting information” but did not promise to give workers additional time off for Election Day.
If people get time off according to which company they happen to work for, it might exacerbate the inconsistencies that already exist across states. And these moves do little to address the scheduling demands of multiple jobs, including informal work like taking care of family members or maintaining a household.
“We don’t have the easiest system,” Ms. Spillane said.
She added that it might help to treat Election Day as a true holiday in a cultural sense, rather than just a reason to take time off work. “We need to figure out a way to promote a culture of participation and make it fun, celebratory and appealing for people to participate civically,” she said.
Follow Jacey Fortin on Twitter: @JaceyFortin.
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