Chuck Millsaps said it’s been routine at his company to allow employees to take time off during the workday to vote, so he eagerly signed on to a national campaign prodding other businesses to make it easier for workers to vote.
Raleigh-based Great Outdoor Provision Co. is one of more than 150 companies nationwide that have signed on to a campaign called Time To Vote.
The campaign comes in a midterm election year, when voter participation is expected to be lower than it was two years ago when the presidential race drove turnout. North Carolina has no marquee statewide race leading the ballot this year.
“We’ve just seen the voter turnout continue to decrease and this was simply an effort to raise awareness,” said Millsaps, company president. “It’s just a very nonpartisan effort to increase participation.”
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Great Outdoor Provision has seven stores in North Carolina, including locations in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Charlotte, and two in Virginia.
Millsaps joined the campaign after talking to Patagonia representatives at a trade show this year. Patagonia, a designer of outdoor clothing and gear, closed on Election Day two years ago to make sure its employees had a chance to vote. Patagonia is doing it again this year.
Retailing giant Walmart is participating in the campaign, along with companies as diverse as PayPal and New Belgium Brewing.
Bandwidth, a Raleigh-based communications software company with about 380 employees, has also signed on. Bandwidth is giving employees two hours paid time off to vote, has asked managers not to schedule meetings on Election Day, and will give an Election Day lunch to employees who show their “I Voted” stickers, a Bandwidth spokeswoman said in an email.
Its up to the companies to decide how they’ll encourage voting, said Patagonia spokeswoman Corley Kenna.
“A lot of these kinds of initiatives are just to create more conversation about the importance of voting,” she said in an interview. “Having it come from the business community is a really important thing.”
Companies demonstrating to employees that voting is important can help improve turnout, said Kate Fellman, founder and director of You Can Vote, a voter education organization based in Durham.
“I think it would be really helpful, especially if employers would encourage and really promote voting with their employees - ‘yes you can vote, yes you can make up the hours,’” she said.
You Can Vote, which has 1,800 volunteers, has hosted “lunch-and-learn” voter education events at worksites. Providing basic information on voter registration and polling sites helps employees, who often don’t have time to hunt down such information, Fellman said.
“When places of work offer voter registration and voter education and provide early voting schedules, it creates a culture of voting,” she said.
Twenty-nine states have laws requiring companies give employees time off to vote, according to the Voter Participation Center, a national organization focused on increasing voting among unmarried women, people of color, and people in their 20s and 30s. North Carolina is not one of them.
Several House Democrats filed a bill in 2001 to require companies to give workers time off to vote when work schedules conflicted with voting hours. That bill never got a committee hearing. At the same time, the legislature was expanding the early voting schedule to include more days and Saturday hours.
Page Gardner, president of the Voter Participation Center, said North Carolina still needs a law requiring employers to give workers paid time off to vote.
Early voting is important to increasing participation in elections, Gardner said, but many people don’t have a way to get to distant early voting sites or the time to wait in long lines.
If you have to take unpaid time from work to vote, “you are absolutely losing money by voting,” she said.
“People need time off to vote,” Gardner said.
But John Rustin, executive director of the NC Family Policy Council, said the state doesn’t need a law. Businesses help employees carve out time to vote, he said, and early voting has expanded the opportunities to vote beyond Election Day.
Rustin ran the NC Free Enterprise Foundation, an organization that provides political research to businesses, from 2009-2013.
“The business community in North Carolina understands how much a fundamental right voting is,” he said. “They really, by and large, strongly encourage their employees to vote and will make accommodations.”