The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hundreds of tech companies are letting employees skip work on Election Day

(Ryan Hermens/The Paducah Sun via AP)
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The 2014 electoral cycle marked a new low for U.S. voter turnout: Not since World War II had fewer Americans gone to the polls, as a percentage of the population.

Now, nearly 300 tech firms want to counter the decades-long decline in voter participation by making Nov. 8, the day America will select its next president, a paid company holiday. In what may be the most coordinated effort yet by tech companies to change a downward trend in U.S. voting behavior, some industry officials say they hope their stance on Election Day will spur other businesses — and maybe even the federal government — to follow suit.

"It creates pressure across the board for more companies to do that in places where their employees maybe aren't as likely to vote," said Jim Pugh, founder of the political data firm ShareProgress, which has endorsed the policy. "The more we can have this be a norm within the corporate space, the more it's going to push good civic corporate behavior."

The idea, proponents say, is to help compensate workers for the income they may give up by going to the polls (instead of going to work). The current list includes mainly smaller companies, not all headquartered in the Bay Area. But it also features household names such as Spotify, and the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia.

Political scientists attribute the decades-long decline in voter participation to a host of factors, but more worrying than the cause of voter apathy might be its consequences. Ideological hard-liners on both ends of the political spectrum tend to vote more often than other Americans, and together with falling rates of voter turnout could result in more extreme candidates or policies, according to William Galston, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

"Our low turnout rate pushes American politics toward increased polarization," Galston wrote in 2011.

Members of the tech industry who've endorsed making Election Day a holiday believe their efforts could help blunt these effects, and potentially change how American democracy functions.

That's what motivates Hunter Walk, a former Google employee-turned-venture capitalist. In July, Walk fired off a series of tweets urging people (and companies) to block off time to vote on Nov. 8. Within hours, dozens in Silicon Valley's tightknit start-up community had vowed to give their workers the day off. The number of participating companies grew so quickly that Walk had to begin keeping track of them on a Google spreadsheet.

"More people were signing up every few days being like, 'Now we're up to 50, 75. What about your company?' " said Walk in an interview.

As of Monday, 277 companies had been added to the spreadsheet.

Silicon Valley firms are hardly the first to propose the policy. In 2001, President George W. Bush endorsed a report from a commission chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford recommending, among other things, that Election Day be moved to Veterans Day — the better to entice Americans to vote as a patriotic duty. More recently, President Obama said in an interview with a college newspaper that he favors making Election Day a national holiday.

But could the push to make Election Day a corporate holiday really lead to meaningful changes in turnout? It all depends on how you look at it.

On its own, the move isn't likely to shift the course of the presidential race, political scientists say. Most of the people affected by the policy would be those who are already likelier to vote compared to some of their lower-income, minority counterparts.

"I would say that it is probably negligible, just because generally speaking, these tech workers are salaried workers," said Ernest McGowen, a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University who studies political behavior. "It's hourly workers, particularly in lower-wage jobs, where that kind of thing is more pressing — it's more of a reason people don't turn out."

Even if Election Day were made a national holiday by government mandate, said McGowen, it would look a lot like other federal holidays where legions of Americans still report to work.

"It's not like they're shutting down McDonald's," McGowen said. "People are going to want to make money because it's a holiday."

Still, McGowen said, the idea could make a small impact on downticket races in contested districts or on ballot referendums. Which party might benefit more? The answer isn't clear. While tech workers in California appear to lean Democratic, some companies on Walk's spreadsheet hail from states such as Ohio and Colorado where things are more mixed.

Research shows that the more important factors governing people's decision to vote have to do with their in-person social networks and a feeling that their ballot will have an impact on the final outcome. While these may be linked to a person's socio-economic status, a voter's income level is only a partial predictor of their propensity to vote, according to Corrine McConnaughy, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.

For example, said McConnaughy, black Americans tend to vote at higher rates than other Americans of the same socio-economic status.

"Part of the explanation people offer for that is that there is this ongoing in-community mobilization," she said.

Still, even if the current crop of tech companies winds up benefiting wealthier voters by making Election Day a holiday, the hope among tech advocates is that their efforts may set a precedent that prompts other businesses to hop on the bandwagon, just as their office culture has spread across the country.