November’s general election will pose unprecedented operational and administrative challenges given high anticipated turnout, disruptions caused by Covid-19, and an economic crisis that has triggered significant budget shortfalls in nearly every state, county, and municipality. The Brennan Center has estimated that state and local election administrators need roughly $3.6 billion to make the adjustments needed to run a safe, secure, accessible, and healthy election during the pandemic. Unfortunately, Congress has thus far failed to appropriate the funds needed to safely administer the election, effectively abdicating its responsibility to protect the basic foundations of our democracy.
While congressional support is still badly needed before November, at this point, ensuring elections in which all voters can cast a secure ballot without jeopardizing their health will require a coordinated effort from all sectors of society.
The business community in particular can leverage its resources and influence to help ensure that voters have access to safe voting options and that state and local administrators are prepared for November.
Support Employees’ Voting Rights
There are several critical steps businesses can and should take to support their employees’ ability to safely and securely exercise their right to vote this November.
- Paid time off to vote: Most directly, businesses should give their employees paid time off to vote, whether to cast an early or a mail-in ballot before Election Day or to go to a polling place on November 3. A growing number of employers have joined Time to Vote, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 600 companies, led by businesses including Levi Strauss and Patagonia, whose members pledge to ensure that all of their employees have time available to cast their ballots.
- Voter registration: Employers should encourage their staff to register to vote, including by providing information from the relevant state and local election administrators on how to register and on deadlines and other requirements. When feasible, employers should encourage on-site voter registration drives. Businesses can partner with National Voter Registration Day to support voter registration both within and beyond their workplaces.
- Voter education: Businesses should also provide their employees with information on the options for voting in their jurisdictions, which may include voting by mail, early in-person voting, and voting in person on Election Day. The information provided should come from official government sources, such as state and county boards of elections. (Their websites are collated here.) Existing coalitions, such as the Civic Alliance and ElectionDay.org, provide additional resources. This information is critical, as many citizens are not aware of the options available to them to vote safely during the pandemic. The election has already been targeted by disinformation campaigns waged by domestic and foreign actors. Employers can help counter the misinformation being spread online by serving as trusted sources of accurate information on how to vote.
Critically, all information and materials provided to employees on how to register and options for voting must come from nonpartisan sources. Any attempt to influence who employees vote for can create the impression that the employer is trying to put inappropriate pressure on its employees and may violate federal and state laws.
Support Customers’ Voting Rights
Businesses that interface directly with the public should also take steps to assist their customers in exercising their right to vote.
- Voter education: Businesses should make accurate information available to their customers on how to register to vote and cast a ballot. Retailers might post printed guidance, similar to that provided to their employees, at their physical locations. Links to relevant government websites (which can be found here) can also be included on company and consumer websites. In July, for example, Facebook pinned voter registration information on voting-age U.S. users’ news feeds in the hope of helping 4 million people register to vote.
- Combating disinformation: Companies that sell online advertising have a special responsibility to ensure that the public is accurately informed about election procedures, especially as rules may change in response to outbreaks of Covid-19. Such companies should commit to take down any posts on their platforms that include false information about voting rules and take other steps to proactively counter disinformation spread online. Both Twitter and Facebook have announced such efforts to fight misinformation about voting procedures.
As with communications to employees, it is critical that all information and resources provided be completely nonpartisan and not seek to influence who customers or the broader public vote for.
Support Election Administrators With In-Kind and Monetary Contributions
Our nation’s election officials face an unprecedented crisis. The continued effects of the Covid-19 pandemic create the risk of systemic election administration failures before, during, and after Election Day. Without a substantial infusion of resources, mail-in votes may not be processed, received, or counted on time; voters may face long lines at the polls; results may not be reported for many weeks after Election Day; and the election as a whole might be delegitimized in the eyes of many following chaos and conflicting reports.
Cash-strapped election officials have begged Congress for funds to prevent these problems and prepare for a pandemic election — with the support of public health officials, national security leaders, election experts, business leaders, veterans, and civil rights groups — and yet Congress has thus far only appropriated a small fraction of the resources they need. With the election around the corner, election administrators simply cannot wait for Congress to take steps to revamp and expand early and mail voting while also ensuring that polling places are safe and accessible for those who will vote in person. But since many do not have the resources to do so, it is critical that the private sector step up to support state and local election administrators so that they can offer safe, accessible, secure, and fair elections.
- Enable employees to serve as poll workers: One easy way for businesses to assist their local election administrators is to encourage their employees to volunteer as poll workers on Election Day if they can do so safely. While many jurisdictions are offering expanded vote by mail in response to the pandemic, millions of voters will still vote in person on Election Day. But the coronavirus has produced a crisis in poll worker recruitment. Even before the pandemic, 70 percent of jurisdictions struggled to recruit poll workers, who tend to be elderly and at high risk of Covid-19. Now states across the country are reporting high absentee rates and shortages of tens of thousands of workers, which contributed to unacceptably long lines during primary elections earlier this year. Private employers can play a critical role in preventing similar problems in November. For example, the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group of businesses, is working to recruit 250,000 new poll workers in advance of the general election. At a minimum, businesses should facilitate their employees’ volunteering by offering paid time off for any employee who chooses to do so.
- Donate facilities for polling places: Businesses can also donate their facilities for use as in-person polling places if they have appropriate spaces available. Because of the pandemic, many traditional polling locations, such as schools and retirement homes, are not available for use. Private businesses, especially those with large and well-ventilated facilities, can help fill the gap by making their buildings available on Election Day, preferably at no cost to election administrators. Several have already done so. Every NBA franchise, for example, has offered their arena for use as a polling place. Any donated facilities should meet published guidelines for healthy in-person voting, including having enough space for social distancing, multiple entrances and exits, easy access via parking or public transportation, and adequate HVAC systems.
- Donate facilities for ballot storage or counting: Even if businesses do not have facilities appropriate for use as polling places, they can still donate buildings with adequate ventilation and space for social distancing for storing and counting ballots.
- Donate key supplies, including PPE: The private sector can also support local election administrators who have the capacity to accept direct donations of personal protective equipment and other supplies for election workers. For example, Anheuser-Busch is donating hand sanitizer to polling locations across the country.
- Partner with state or local governments by donating funds for election administration: If Congress continues to abandon its responsibility to protect our elections, the private sector should be prepared to help close the funding gap by giving money for use by state and local election officials. While the ability of state officials to accept and spend such donations varies, many can do so, and donations also can generally be accepted at the local level. In fact, several nonprofit organizations have already set up programs to direct donations to local governments in need of support. Donations should be routed to jurisdictions with the most need on a strictly nonpartisan basis, to be spent solely at the direction of election officials. There are many ways to go about doing so. One approach is to work with an organization that has committed to distributing funds at the direction of an expert, bipartisan board of advisers, preferably one that includes current or former election officials and other experts.
- Provide specialized support for election administration functions: Private entities with specialized skills relevant to election administration can partner with state or local governments to provide in-depth and tailored support to election administrators, such as assistance with poll worker training or public education on new voting procedures. Hamilton County, Ohio, for instance, works with local businesses to recruit and train poll workers. Specific options will vary by location. Again, it is critical that any such programs be organized and administered on strictly nonpartisan lines.