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‘Too Busy’ to Vote? Now You Can’t Blame Your Boss

A push is on to make it easier for employees to get to the polls on Election Day.

Earlier this month, Tory Burch, chief executive of her eponymous ballet flat empire, launched a campaign to get her “fellow corporate citizens” to give employees time off from work so they can vote in the upcoming presidential election, an initiative that came replete with the obligatory hashtag #TimeOfftoVote.

Almost half of the American population doesn’t bother: In 2012, only 56.5 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot, according to the U.S. Census. One of the many reasons for relatively low turnout, compared with other democracies, is that many consider it logistically difficult to get to the polls—especially those who work. In-person voting occurs on one day in the middle of the week and largely during work hours. “Too busy” is the reason Americans commonly cite for opting out of their civic duty, according to the government’s 2012 post-election survey.

Although polls in all states open before 9 a.m. and close after regular business hours, people can end up waiting in endless lines, even if they go right before or after work. And then there are the voters who don’t work regular business hours. Burch’s cause, which so far has been joined by Spotify Ltd., SurveyMonkey, and Edelman, aims to make voting on Nov. 8 a little bit easier.

“Giving employees time off on Election Day will not only facilitate their participation in our democratic system—a net win for all of us—it will also foster a culture in which the importance of voting is recognized and celebrated,” she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The thing is, though, that many employees already get time off to vote. In fact, many of Burch’s own employees have access to paid time off to vote, by dint of working in New York. Thirty-one states require employers to provide time off to vote, and three-quarters of them require that time to be paid. For example, in New York, where Tory Burch is headquartered, people who do not have four consecutive nonworking hours between when polls open and close must get two hours’ paid leave to vote. That’s what Burch is offering her retail workers.

And going to the polls on Election Day, or at all, is quickly going out of style entirely. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states and the District of Columbia have some form of early voting, which, unlike many absentee ballot options, doesn’t require a specific excuse (military, overseas citizen, unable to travel), the conference said. In fact, the NCSL said 27 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to use an absentee ballot without an excuse.

But for those who prefer voting in person, only a small fraction of companies make them do it on their own time. More than half of employers surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management provide paid time off to vote, while another good chunk gives workers unpaid leave to get to the polls. 

Each state and employer has its own regulations, making it difficult for employees to know what they’re entitled to. Edward Yost, a partner at SHRM, recommends employees look up their policies. Sometimes a worker has to notify a supervisor, while others require a written note. Some states, like California and New York, require employers to post notices of policies a set period of time before voting day. (This website also has a handy state-by-state guide.) Then, employers might also have their own rules: Burch’s in-store workers, for example, have to stagger when they take their voting time off so someone remains behind to man the register. 

Urging people to vote is about as close as most companies come to promoting a specific candidate. Of course, there’s nothing stopping a CEO from attempting to rally his employees to a preferred nominee, but it generally doesn’t look good. In 2012, David Siegel, founder of Westgate Resorts and a subject of the documentary The Queen of Versailles, was criticized for an e-mail he sent employees urging them to vote for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “What does threaten your job however, is another four years of the same presidential administration. Of course, as your employer, I can’t tell you whom to vote for, and I certainly wouldn’t interfere with your right to vote for whomever you choose,” Siegel wrote in a widely circulated memo. 

“You want to avoid that kind of threatening mentality,” said Yost. “When you start aligning yourself with a particular candidate, everything that has been associated with that candidate tends to get stuck with you.”

A better tactic is to get behind a theoretically bipartisan cause. “To have a voice in this country is what this country is about,” Burch told Bloomberg News, “whether you’re a Republican or Democrat.”

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