The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new campaign contribution: I’ll get my employees to vote for you

Some businesses in states with pitched Republican primary fights are turning to a relatively new tool to help ensure the outcome they want: telling employees how they want them to vote. Thanks in part to Citizens United, it's perfectly legal — but it probably doesn't do much good.

Bloomberg Businessweek describes the concerted effort by business groups to get their member corporations ready to weigh in on the election — an election, we'll remind you, that has largely been framed as business-versus-Tea Party. The National Association of Manufacturers spent a week in Kentucky, briefing "as many as 10 businesses a day" on how to get their employees to vote for Sen. Mitch McConnell. The Business-Industry Political Action Committee held a meeting in Idaho in January to encourage support for Rep. Mike Simpson, with employers representing about 94,000 voters in the room. Both men faced competitive primary challenges from tea party-backed challengers.

When the Supreme Court removed prohibitions against corporate political spending in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, businesses were freed to do precisely this sort of electioneering. Shortly before the 2012 election, the New York Times reported on a letter sent from Georgia-Pacific (a subsidiary, the rules of politics blogging require we note, of Koch Industries) to employees criticizing President Obama. Companies can't threaten to fire employees if they don't vote a certain way, but can indicate their concern about the effects on the company if the "wrong" candidate is elected. "Employers can be the most credible source of information for their employees," BIPAC's Greg Casey told Businessweek.

So will this work? Well, there are a lot of variables at play. If that push in Idaho is successful, it could be significant. In the 2010 primary, only 203,000 people voted. If BIPAC gets those employers to get some significant chunk of their 94,000 employees (or about 62,000 Republicans) to the polls, that's huge.

Idaho is an exception, though. Fewer than fifty employers of unknown size in Kentucky will have trouble making as big a dent. About 920,000 people voted in Kentucky's 2010 primary -- in a state that's much less heavily Republican than Idaho. (In fact, far more Democrats voted in the 2010 Kentucky primary than Republicans. That's largely due to the historic Democratic nature of the south and less a comment about the ideology of the state, however. )

Not to mention that telling 94,000 workers to vote a certain way is no guarantee it will happen. (If every endorser could guarantee all of his/her supporters would back the endorsee, it'd be a very different world.) It depends on those employers actually implementing BIPAC's plan. And if those employees all then (or even in part) go to the polls. And if they vote the way their employer hopes they will. You can practically hear that number wearing away with each sentence.

It does raise an interesting question though in light of the perennial fight over expanded voting hours. One of the main obstacles to voting is that people can't take time off from work. Employers who pass out flyers as they point employees toward the closest polling place for their one-hour voting break could definitely increase the vote.

Employers should not expect they'll make all the difference. So Ben Tarbutton, who Businessweek says hopes to get his 30 employees to vote for Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) in today's Senate primary, shouldn't feel too bad if Kingston doesn't win. (He's on the bubble.) After all, just shy of 1.1 million people voted in Georgia's contested 2010 gubernatorial primary, including 680,000 Republicans. The margin today will probably be more than 30 votes.