How Companies Can Actually Support Voting Rights Beyond Just Statements

In 2020, eight vote centers in Harris County, Texas stayed open from 7 a.m. on Thursday, October 29 to 7 p.m. on Friday, October 30. When Harris County first introduced the audacious 24-hour vote centers, many people asked, “who even needs to vote overnight?”

The answers varied. There was the 40-year-old engineer who worked in the Houston Ship Channel. A public transportation employee who worked late hours and didn’t have time to vote during the day. And healthcare workers at the Texas Medical Center — the largest medical center in the world home to over 60 institutions and more than 100,000 workers — conveniently cast their ballots while battling the pandemic on the frontlines.

People who work irregular hours face disproportionate barriers to vote.

These voters don’t work hours according to the typical Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 schedule. They often start very early in the morning and end well into the night. Their shifts can also extend into the weekends. Polling places that were conscious of these atypical working hours made it much easier for these workers to participate in the presidential election. “Time is money,” wrote Sendhil Mullainathan before the 2020 elections. And when voting takes time out of a work schedule, some voters are left with the choice of casting a ballot or earning a wage.

Currently, 28 states require employers to give employees time off to vote  —  22 states require paid time off to vote, but six states only require unpaid time off for elections. Two additional states have similar laws when it comes to providing time off for voting: North Dakota “encourages” but does not require time off to vote and Ohio requires paid time off to vote, but only for salaried employees. The laws governing time off to vote vary widely from state to state. In Minnesota, voters can take “as much time as [they] need to vote.” Voters in Oklahoma can have two hours of paid time to vote, however ”if a three-hour voting period exists before or after the employees’ normal working hours” then the employee is not eligible for paid time off. Most states’ laws function more like Oklahoma than Minnesota when it comes to time off for voting.

Certain laws aren’t as effective as they may seem.

A legislative solution to this issue would be to implement no-excuse absentee voting nationwide so that anyone can vote by mail even if their work hours or job structure conflicts with in-person voting. Beyond this, a law mandating early voting in every state to include weekend hours could also alleviate some of the problem. Both of these provisions were included in the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act shot down by Senate Republicans earlier this year. Most recently, a group of House Democrats introduced a bill requiring at least two hours of paid time off to vote for all employees. Even if enacted, this requirement would only apply to federal races, leaving workers behind when trying to vote in state and local elections.

It’s been one year since corporations took a stand for voting rights. But without action, their words have fallen flat.

This is a problem the business community can and should step up and fix. A year ago this month, hundreds of businesses and corporate leaders signed onto a statement saying that they feel a “responsibility to defend the right to vote” and that the “foundation of our electoral process rests upon the ability of each of us to cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.” Since then, some businesses have offered statements against voter suppression laws or reiterated their commitment to democracy, but across the board, concrete action is lacking.

For companies that claim to support voting rights, they can create clear policies regarding time off to vote. First and foremost, they should evaluate if their policies are meeting the minimums required by law in some states — and then go beyond that. In states where only unpaid time off is required, they should allow paid time off to vote. If a statute says that time off isn’t required because polls are open a certain number of hours outside of their employee’s shift, companies should trust their employees to know when is the best time for them to vote and allow them to choose the best time slot on their own accord.

If a state requires paid time off for only two hours to vote, companies should recognize that poll wait times are not equal across the country, or even within the same city, and allow as much time as needed to travel to the polls, wait in line, vote and return to work. Study after study shows that racial disparities persist in poll wait times. Black and Latino voters continue to face longer lines than white voters. One report found that during the 2020 primaries in metro Atlanta, “where minorities constituted more than 90 percent of active registered voters, the average minimum wait time in the evening was 51 minutes. When whites constituted more than 90 percent of registered voters, the average was around six minutes.”

Businesses operating in states without guidance on time off to vote should create the guidance themselves. They can write the policy and apply it to their employees, regardless of what state laws exist (or don’t exist). Whatever policy is developed around time off to vote must be clearly communicated to all employees, from entry-level to the leaders. All managers and supervisors should be well versed in the rules regarding time off to vote and employees should have a clear path for recourse if the policy is not enforced.

During the 2020 election, many businesses made efforts to encourage employees to vote with initiatives like Time To Vote, but in the wake of major suppression laws and continued attacks on our democracy, it’s crucial for companies to make these pro-voting initiatives permanent and widespread.

Time and again, businesses throw their weight and influence to pass more advantageous regulations or curry favor with legislative leaders. But when it comes to their own time off to vote policies, they don’t need to wait for legislative action. If voting rights are as important to companies as they claimed just a year ago, they can make voting easier for their employees right now. There’s nothing holding them back.