Twitter’s impact on the 2020 election will almost certainly be measured by the strictness with which it enforces policies around disinformation. But this past week, the social media giant took a smaller, though still significant, step towards affecting the ballot box in a more proactive way.
In an email to employees on Tuesday, the company announced that it would treat Election Day as a paid day off. The policy would apply to its contract workforce as well, impacting about 5,100 employees globally. And to ensure that everyone took advantage of it, the company said it would be closing offices on that day (though, perhaps, COVID would have a say in that as well).
“For years, we have encouraged our workforce to take time to vote and give back to their community through days of service,” Bridget Coyne, Twitter's Public Policy Director, told The Daily Beast. “We believe this expanded policy will reinforce a community and culture of civic participation at Twitter."
The announcement underscored a larger trend in the fight over ballot access. At a time when there are increasingly piqued battles in the courts and the statehouses, some of the most tangible progress in voting rights is being made by a corporate America that’s determined to demonstrate its civic-minded ethos.
Twitter, in some respects, is a late entrant to this field. As of this month, more than 500 companies have become part of the Time to Vote coalition—a group led by Patagonia, Levi’s and PayPal that, among other things, encourages businesses to give their workers paid days off for Election Day or provide educational and administrative assistance around vote-by-mail and early voting. The coalition contains many notable names, the most recent of which is Deloitte. But what’s remarkable about it is not its member list, but that it came together without any outside pressure from political activists and organizers.
Indeed, while voting rights groups have lobbied lawmakers, petitioned courts, and launched expansive PR efforts around expanding the franchise, one thing they have not chosen to do is to demand that businesses give their workers paid time off to vote. The Daily Beast contacted half a dozen leading organizations and advocates in this field. None said they were aware of any such effort, even though corporate accountability campaigns have been wildly successful on a host of other political fronts.
“We are not doing any advocacy. Though we have worked with some of the Time to Vote companies,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It comes from within and from those business leaders. It’s not something that they dreamt up this past week. It’s something they committed themselves to and have continued to work to expand their footprint and voice on.”
Corporate involvement in ballot access matters is not new. When he was secretary of state of Ohio, Sherrod Brown got McDonald’s franchises to agree to print voter registration forms as their tray liners. Brown, now a senator, recalled getting applications coated in ketchup and mustard. Back in 2008, Starbucks decided to give customers a free cup of coffee if they proved they had cast a ballot while Krispy Kreme offered patriotic-colored donuts for the same.
But involvement in these issues often came with risks; Starbucks and Krispy Kreme, for example, were accused of electoral bribery. As a result, many businesses were reluctant to appear as if they were trying to exert influence on elections.
That’s changed in recent years. And among those in the field, one company has been credited above all others in leading the way: Patagonia.
In 2016, the CEO of the outdoor apparel giant, Rose Marcario, decided to shut down her entire company (headquarters, distribution centers and retail stores) for Election Day. It was a signal for workers and customers alike that the day was meant for voting, not shopping. And unlike with Starbucks and Kripsy Kreme, the feedback was universally positive.
Two years later, Marcario wrote a manifesto titled “Let My People Go Vote.” She also began reaching out to corporate contacts to see if they would —philosophically speaking—sign on.
The movement became Time to Vote and it quickly picked up steam. Not every company gave their employees a paid day off on Election Day. But all made some tangible commitment, whether providing them educational material about early voting, petitioning lawmakers for more funding for election security, or, in the case of group member Lyft, offering rides to the polls. As of now, the estimated universe of workers covered by the coalition is in the millions. And it’s been organized almost entirely through a few select staffers hosting weekly calls.
"One of the things I didn't fully appreciate when we started this is that companies are eager for programs that show support for their employees, beyond benefits such as strong maternity and paternity leave policies,” Corley Kenna, director of global communications and public relations at Patagonia, told The Daily Beast. “There is this endless hunger for CEOs to show that they go above and beyond in support of their people."
Beyond the Time to Vote constellation, there has been tremendous movement among businesses to demonstrate their own commitments to expanding voting rights. Uber recently announced that it too was going to make Election Day a company holiday, as did Blue Apron. The NCAA sent out a notice encouraging its member schools to not have athletic activities take place on Election Day—something that Gonzaga’s high-profile basketball team is slated to do.
It’s not just major companies making the commitment. In 2018, Adafruit Industries, an open-source hardware company based in New York City, began giving its 100 employees Election Day as a paid holiday after the company’s founder, Limor Fried, saw staff having to juggle getting involved in the state’s primaries with “also need[ing] to pay bills and rent.” And then there is BluePoint Brewer, which not only gave its 150 employees a paid day off on Election Day but also came up with a campaign to encourage others to do the same and a line of beer championing the cause.
“We are actively interested in making sure people have access to voting,” said Shelby Poole, a publicist for the company. “We really do align as a company on this.”
For those who operate in the realm of corporate accountability politics, the decisions these businesses have made fits a familiar pattern. CEOs increasingly recognize benefits (both moral and financial) from cultivating socially conscious brands. After mass shooting events, companies have rushed to distance themselves from gun rights groups. Sleeping Giants, a liberal social media activism organization, has persuaded countless companies to stop advertising on Fox News. And with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, businesses have moved to declare Juneteenth a company holiday as well. Some have gone even further, pulling their ads from shows with decidedly poor records on racial sensitivity or cutting ties with D.C.-based lobbyists who have been critical of BLM.
But those decisions have often come under acute pressure from activists or ideological reporters. And the fact that similar pressure isn’t being applied to businesses to expand their employee’s access to the polls raises the logical question: could even more be done?
One activist, who asked not to be named because they were interested in exploring corporate pressure as a part of their group’s efforts, suggested that corporations would grow skittish if the topic became too politicized. Judd Legum, the progressive reporter whose work compelled two major companies to drop lobbying contracts with conservative lobbyist Matt Schlapp over his BLM commentary, said that activists often find it easier to badger corporations into taking action than compelling them to act.
“I think most of the energy is to say stop doing this horrible thing,” said Legum. “It’s hard to build movements and energy around something good.”
But the overwhelming explanation offered for why more wasn’t being done by activists to pressure businesses was that there were bigger targets elsewhere. In the age of COVID—where vote-by-mail has become a paramount concern—and with various efforts to limit ballot access being undertaken in states across the country, there were, simply put, too many battles to fight.
“I’m supportive of companies empowering workers to vote,” Sen. Brown told The Daily Beast in a statement, when asked about the work he did with McDonald’s in a prior life. “But we need to go far beyond that. On the federal level, we need to pass laws that make it easier for Americans to vote and harder for politicians, at the state and federal levels, to engage in voter suppression and attack Americans’ fundamental right to vote.”