How to boost democracy? Give workers paid time off to vote, some companies say

Last Updated Oct 24, 2018 2:41 PM EDT

Americans may talk more about democracy than exercising it. In the 2014 midterms, only a third of U.S. voters bothered to cast ballots -- the lowest turnout for a national election in the developed world since 1945. 

But a growing number of U.S. companies are moving to change that by making it easier for people to vote.

CEOs from companies including Patagonia, Levi Strauss, PayPal, Kaiser Permanente, Tyson Foods and Walmart recently issued a joint statement saying they are looking for ways to increase voter turnout, starting with the midterms. Citing research showing that work and family demands are a major impediment to hitting the ballot box, executives said they want to "change the paradigm."

Some businesses have already taken action. On election day in 2016, Patagonia closed all of its retail stores across the country, a distribution and customer service center in Nevada, and its California headquarters to give its employees time off -- paid -- to vote. 

With the outdoor gear company doing the same this November, CEO Rose Marcario is urging other companies to follow suit. "No American should have to choose between a paycheck and fulfilling his or her duty as a citizen," said said in a statement.

For most companies, the commitment to enabling workers to vote stops short of turning Nov. 6 into a paid holiday, as Patagonia does. But some, such as Levi Strauss, are giving their workers paid time off to vote, an idea that's also getting play in academic circles.

In a petition started by two Stanford University political science professors, they and hundreds of their colleagues call on companies including Walmart, Amazon, Starbucks, Home Depot, Lowe's, McDonald's and Target to give workers paid time off to vote. They also called on colleges and universities to cancel classes on election day.

Walmart said it was supporting the effort primarily by providing voting information, including how to register and polling locations, to its workers and customers. 

"In terms of our associates, we believe it's important that everyone has an opportunity to vote, and we have policies in place to ensure they have that opportunity," said a Walmart spokesperson in an email.

At a time companies are more openly staking out positions on a range of issues, from climate change to the minimum wage, others are stepping further into the political fray. 

Levi Strauss' voter push included an alliance with the nonprofit organization Rock the Vote. Separately, the retailer has pledged more than $1 million to nonprofits and youth activists working to end deadly shootings in the U.S.

And Patagonia is publicly endorsing candidates for the first time, backing two Democrats for Senate, Jacky Rosen in Nevada and Jon Tester in Montana, citing "unprecedented threats to our public lands and waters."