By Erin Chambers Charles Birney was worried about how people would react to new touch-screen voting terminals on Election Day. So he decided to take action. Birney, the owner of three golf courses in suburban Washington, D.C., volunteered his links as a test site for the new device. He brought on a volunteer to walk would-be voters through a demonstration in the clubhouse. "We had people flock to that thing each Saturday," Birney says.
Representing more than half the private-sector workforce, small businesses have significant reach, and potentially, significant influence on the electorate. With Nov. 2 just days away, many political observers are expecting record turnout this year because of widespread registration efforts by umbrella organizations like Rock the Vote and JustVote.org.
But small-business owners are another factor, educating employees and encouraging them to take part in the political process. "Small-business owners are a part of that," says Demetrios Caraley, editor of Political Science Quarterly and a former political science professor at Columbia University. "This election is so different than any other election because people feel so passionately about the issues."
BUSY PULPIT. Employees are often the first target for owners' outreach, but the effort can extend beyond their own payroll. Consider Tom Gimble, founder of The LaSalle Network, a temporary staffing firm with 23 employees, who has been stuffing paychecks with voting reminders during the election season and giving résumé tips to unemployed workers at voting drives in Chicago. "It's important to educate, and it's important to play a role," Gimble says. "You can't complain if you don't participate."
Small-business owners appear to be using their pulpit more and more. The National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative-leaning lobbying group with over 600,000 members, reports that many of the small-business owners among its ranks are actively encouraging their employees to vote. Birney, an NFIB member and former chairman of the Maryland Tourism Council, gives his 200 employees paid time off to volunteer at the polls on Election Day or to complete training to register voters.
In 2002, he started DriveTheVote, a voter-participation campaign, and with the help of NFIB and Maryland Business for Responsive Government, provides each employee with a personalized scorecard of local and national elected officials' voting record on small-business issues. "Some people clearly have a history of being against small business," says Birney, a supporter of President Bush, referring to issues such as small-business tax cuts. "This is a clear document to show that."
UNDUE INFLUENCE? But more than just conservative voices are crying out. "It's a big myth that small-business owners are Republicans," says Liz Hagar-Mace, a Democrat who owns a bed and breakfast and a consulting firm in Jefferson City, Mo. "This year we're becoming very active," she says. "We're trying to have a voice in this community." Hagar-Mace, who is planning to vote for Senator John Kerry, says many other left-leaning small businesses have joined with her to organize door-to-door efforts to get out the vote.
Many politically active owners claim their intentions are simply to get people to vote, regardless of who their choice may be. But experts say the boss's political leanings are usually pretty clear and often influential -- particularly at smaller companies.
"It's like asking the question, 'Do you feel coerced to give to a certain charity because you know it's the boss's favorite?'" says William Bygrave, a professor of small business and entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., who notes that a head honcho is less likely to have such an effect with larger staffs. "It might cause some friction at smaller companies."
"EXTREMELY ENTHUSIASTIC." Small-business owners on both sides of the aisle have named health care, energy costs, and outsourcing as top concerns, according to the third quarter results of the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index.
Birney says his employees have responded positively to the DriveTheVote campaign. Dozens have registered, and many have personally thanked him for the information. In fact, small business is one sector that has remained relatively optimistic for the past two years despite a volatile political climate, according to the Wells Fargo/Gallup study. The study also found that nearly 80% of small-business owners have given "quite a lot of thought" to the election, and about 60% are "extremely enthusiastic" about it.
Birney hopes that his efforts to educate employees on the issues -- and to educate duffers on how to touch the touch-screens -- will help drive voter turnout beyond even the already high expectations for this election. And though Hagar-Mace has always spoken up on behalf of small businesses, the current health-care dilemma has pushed her to take a step even further -- running for a seat in the Missouri state legislature.
So is a campaign in Birney's future, as well? "Almost definitely no," says the registered Republican living in a heavily Democratic region of Maryland. "But never say never." It seems his touch-screen tutoring, which could help avoid a potential disaster at the polls next Tuesday, is enough for now. Chambers is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York