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Get Out the Vote Starts Now

Get Out the Vote Starts Now

March 2024

Come Nov. 5 — you may have heard — millions of Americans will be going to the polls to elect a president and members of Congress. There are primaries between now and then, of course, as well as special elections and local contests to be decided, and if 2020 is any indication, there could be record turnouts at least at the presidential level.

That’s great, right? Well, maybe, except that one-third of eligible voters did not cast ballots in the last presidential election, meaning 77 million Americans failed to participate, according to The Hill. More than 40% of younger Americans (those 18 to 34) didn’t vote. Pollsters report the reasons for low levels of participation vary, but one reason — not lost on political action committees working for companies and professional associations — is that nearly one-third of people who didn’t vote weren’t even registered. Nonregistered Americans, The Hill reports, “account for 82% of those who did not vote in the 2020 presidential election.”

These are trends that public affairs professionals have been following with increasing interest in recent years, and responding to with ingenuity and a recognition of what is at stake. “Thousands of companies have recognized that helping their employees vote in an election year is an important benefit,” according to Quorum. “It is good corporation citizenship. It is also good business.” At a time when public distrust of major institutions seems to be spiking, employers are seen as sources of reliable information — and the savvy ones know this.

Alex Donovan, manager of public affairs and policy communications at the Council emphasis this point. “Employers have been working to shed the perception that work is a barrier to voting, when in fact, they can be great facilitators to get their workforce involved in the electoral process. Many organizations have already begun rolling out their internal get-out-the-vote campaigns, especially with the rise of mail-in voting and high-profile primaries, instead of waiting until a few days or weeks from Election Day.”

The results are impressive. In 2018, when voter turnout in the midterm elections was the highest in a century, a significant factor in that record was that hundreds of companies “encouraged their employees and/or consumers to vote,” the Harvard Business Review reports. “For these companies, ‘get out the vote’ programs not only helped get more voters to the polls but also helped to raise brand awareness, strengthen relationships between employees and shareholders, and even open dialogue with elected officials.”

Remain Nonpartisan

“Civic engagement is a priority for us,” says Margaret Taylor, head of public affairs at Salesforce, whose get out the vote programs have existed since 2015. “When I came on board in 2020, civic engagement was already a big priority, with a commitment to improving every year.” As part of this commitment, Salesforce provides employees with timely information about when and how to register and free online learning through its Trailhead platform, offers time off to vote, and hosts candidate forums — all of it nonpartisan.

A nonpartisan approach is important to maintaining trust, especially when companies are under pressure to take positions on often controversial social issues. Here the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sets an admirable example. “We’re the largest grassroots mental health organization with 600 local affiliates, and our origins as an organization speak to our values,” says Brandon Graham, NAMI’s director of advocacy. “The organizations started in 1979, with concerned mothers sitting around a kitchen table — mothers navigating the mental health challenges of their families and friends. Our goal with the #Vote4MentalHealth campaign has been to educate people about how mental health is affected by policy, whether that policy is set by a local school board or in the White House. We want people to understand how decisions are made and how the system operates. But we don’t tell them how to vote, which is one reason we are a trusted source for reliable information.”

Salesforce also engages with partners, such as TurboVote, to provide employees with the latest resources to stay engaged. Taylor explains, “There are partners that offer readily available, off-the-shelf resources to help educate our members and facilitate their participation in the democratic process. In 2020, in partnership with Democracy Works, for example, we helped more than 1,200 employees register to vote, and more than 2,000 signed up for election reminders — a 100% increase from 2019. That’s exciting.”

Recruiting Poll Workers

In addition to declaring Election Day a company holiday, Salesforce has also approved nonpartisan poll work as Volunteer Time Off, with nearly 700 employees volunteering as poll workers across the country in 2020.

Recruiting poll workers continues to be of concern this election year. In one especially alarming case, at the June 9, 2020, Georgia Senate elections, five out of seven poll workers did not show up for their shifts, causing six-hour long delays and — by some accounts — suppressing voter turnout. Salesforce’s BOLDforce employee resource group stepped up and partnered with Black employee resource groups at other companies to recruit 50 additional election day workers and volunteers.

Because many poll workers are seniors, COVID-19 took a toll on their participation, but other concerns played a role, too. Poll worker shortages have been reported throughout the U.S., “and many polling places had to close,” Taylor says. “We’ve been doubling down not only on get out the vote efforts but also encouraging employees to become nonpartisan poll workers. Some people in 2020 reported feeling unsafe, and Salesforce has done whatever was necessary to address these concerns — even working with our Global Safety and Security department to alert employees to possible dangers such as earthquakes that might affect polling places.”

Donovan points to the importance of public affairs functions as GOTV campaigns become more sophisticated, “Public affairs teams are getting creative with offerings like sending ballot issue explainers, poll-worker volunteering opportunities, and even tours of the ballot-counting process.”

‘New Opportunities’

Election years are stressful enough these days, with distrust building and the political environment becoming increasingly poisonous. Surveys show that people report feeling turned off and burned out, which also accounts for potential voters not bothering to cast ballots.

“I understand why there is talk of burnout,” Taylor says. “People can feel overwhelmed by the news coverage, so there is a heightened anxiety for a lot of people. But with these new challenges come new opportunities. More people are paying attention in a presidential year than they otherwise would. So this is a time for organizations — as trusted sources of information — to remind people that by being active participants in the process, rather than just tuning out, they can effect the change they want.”

This is not a time to be inventing new initiatives, but rather deploying the programs already in place in a consistent and impactful way. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” Taylor advises. “When you do that, it becomes harder to keep people engaged. Companies need to work smarter so that civic engagement programs are lasting and not something that comes and goes every four years.”

Graham makes a similar point. “Too many organizations get active right after Labor Day, heading toward November,” he says. “That can mean you are trying to get people to suddenly deal with 11 emails in 11 weeks, in a rush of information that can be off-putting. By contrast, this year we began our election year efforts at the end of January, sharing trustworthy, accurate, reputable and actionable information. That is how you can break through the noise and negativity, so people feel good about getting involved.”

Jump-start Your GOTV Efforts

These organizations can help you get started or improve your current efforts:

  • Civic Alliance provides information and resources for employers to encourage civic participation such as voting.
  • Power the Polls helps recruit more poll workers.
  • National Conference of State Legislatures provides information on finding and keeping qualified poll workers.
  • TurboVote helps Americans get voter registration and voting by mail information.
  • Democracy Works collaborates with election officials, leading tech platforms and partners to drive voter access and participation.
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