Photo: A mural in Milwaukee, WI installed in the months before the 2020 U.S. elections. Successful voter engagement efforts led by companies across the U.S. are now at risk to various states’ legislation that critics say suppress the right to vote.
The 2020 election may be behind us, but voting – and corporate America’s role in it – continues to make headlines well into 2021. With Congress debating bills like H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 and states like Texas pushing forward controversial legislation to restrict voting, a lot of companies are contemplating what to say and do on the voter engagement front. These questions aren’t going away any time soon.
In a democracy, voting safely and securely should be easy, but too often, our government leaders don’t provide the resources or accessibility people need to vote – or in the worst case-scenarios, they actively work to undermine these resources. To bridge that gap, companies have risen to the occasion and have been successful and boosting voter engagement. Now, consumers and employees alike have grown accustomed to looking to these brands for trustworthy information – and they’ve shown their appreciation.
For many brands, the pandemic, economic downturn and racial justice uprising catalyzed a movement to educate voters about safe and secure ways to cast their ballot. Companies like Instacart, United Airlines, Yelp, and the NFL laid the groundwork in 2020 to institutionalize civic responsibility programs, and initiatives like Power the Polls and Vote Early Day brought over 1,000 corporate partners together to help spur historic voter turnout.
Unfortunately, some of the simplest voter engagement initiatives are now being threatened by an alarming trend away from accessible voting. Last year, companies like UberEats, Shake Shack, and Milkbar worked with Pizza to the Polls to distribute free food for all near polling places experiencing long lines: a practice that would be rendered illegal under laws like what we’re seeing in Georgia and Florida. All of a sudden, the work of so many brands to champion democracy are under attack. New polling shows that 82 percent of Americans say they would feel more favorable about a company if they supported policies to make it easier for Americans to vote and register to vote.
First, it’s critical to understand just how important these efforts continue to be for businesses across the country. Following the 2018 midterms, we studied the role that pioneering brands like BlueCross and BlueShield of MN, Endeavor, GAP Inc., Patagonia, Snap Inc., Spotify, Target and Twitter were playing in voter engagement.
Of these eight companies we profiled, all reported a rise in demand for corporate civic responsibility from both employees and consumers. Several business leaders went so far as to say that being unresponsive to these demands could be a risk to their business. Today, the data is even more compelling: after reading American Airlines’ response to Texas’ newly proposed voting legislation Senate Bill 7, 71 percent of voters say they agree with American’s statement (including a majority of both Republicans and Democrats) and 67 percent say it makes them view American Airlines more favorably.
Recognizing the importance for continued brand-led voter engagement, there are rules of thumb to successfully thread the needle of non-partisan, pro-democracy action.
Take time to identify which issue area is particularly important to your stakeholders and determine what you need to do in order to speak to this issue with authority and authenticity. What resources might help your stakeholders engage? How is your company uniquely positioned to meet these needs? Whether you’re starting from scratch or looking to improve existing initiatives, there are a number of consultants ready to help guide brands and businesses on civic engagement programming.
Building relationships with nonprofits who are at the frontline of a specific issue area can help lend the brand credibility and achieve deeper impact. Grassroots leaders have worked in this space, including the quest to drive up voter engagement, for years: Listen to what they need, find common ground and determine how you can make an impact. Additionally, there are a number of other companies ready to trade notes and share advice with their peers.
Companies don’t need to wait until an election year to become civically involved. You can begin launching voter engagement efforts across departments and build strong internal teams that can integrate this work more seamlessly into the brand’s identity. If the tidal wave of support for civic responsibility didn’t convince you in 2020, don’t wait – this trend’s here to stay.
The bottom line is that corporate civic responsibility work isn’t done. Companies have stepped in where the government has fallen short because they know that democracy is and will continue to be good for business well beyond 2020. Every business – no matter the industry – has a role to play in continuing to serve as a trusted source of information and serve as a civic cheerleader to their audiences -- because 2022 is right around the corner.
Image credit: Tom Barrett/Unsplash
Ashley Spillane is the founder and president of Impactual and founder of the Civic Responsibility Project. She is the former president of Rock the Vote and is a former Roy and Lila Ash Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center.