How are businesses encouraging civic engagement in 2020?

The Ash Center sat down with Ashley Spillane MC/MPA 2018, president of social impact consulting firm Impactual, and Sofia Gross, Ash Center Technology and Democracy Fellow 2018-19, public policy manager at Snap, Inc.; authors of Civic Responsibility: The Power of Companies to Increase Voter Turnoutto discuss how organizations are supporting voter participation this fall.

I voted sticker on denim

Ash: In your case study of the 2018 election, you noted over 400 companies implemented voter engagement initiatives; what does this look like now in 2020?

Spillane and Gross: The evolving growth in corporate civic responsibility programs since our case study was published last year has been really incredible to see. We can’t ignore the fact that democracy is trending right now — and the number of companies who are involving themselves in GOTV efforts has increased from several hundred to several thousand in the span of two years.

Companies are seeing the value of civic responsibility, especially as more people are paying attention to politics and enthusiasm around the subject of democracy is high. Everywhere you turn you’re met with messages from brands, individuals, and campaigns about voting in the upcoming election. Civic Alliance, an organization dedicated to supporting employee and consumer civic engagement, has grown exponentially since the 2018 midterm election: it has 450+ members companies up from 60 in the last midterm.

Ash: What unique approaches to encouraging voter participation have you seen companies take this election cycle?

Spillane and Gross: A main takeaway from the study was that every brand has a role to play in our democracy. Whether a global brand or small local business, every company can do something to help its employees and consumers register, educate themselves, and get to the polls. Collectively speaking, hundreds of companies had big pushes on National Voter Registration Day (9/22)  that resulted in 1.6 million people registering to vote in one day. Platforms like Snapchat and Instagram have stepped up their in-app activations to meet young people where they are; Snapchat alone has helped register over 1.2 million users in a month.

Companies have gone well beyond registration this year too. Levi’s, Uber, and Old Navy are giving employees paid time off to volunteer as poll workers, in support of the  Power the Polls campaign which has garnered over 650,000 sign-ups (the original goal was 250,000!) Milk Bar, Shake Shack, and dozens of other restaurants are teaming up with the Pizza to the Polls program to deliver food to hundreds of polling places with long lines.


Spillane and Gross, together, smile holding copies of their case study report on civic engagement
Business leaders and decision-makers don’t have to do it all to make a difference; doing something small is better than nothing at all, remind Spillane (left) and Gross

Ash: As the number of companies with civic engagement efforts rises, are you seeing increased pressure on businesses and other organizations to get involved?

Spillane and Gross: During an interview with one of the case study participants in 2018, we were told that, from a business standpoint, the company’s leadership felt complacency around civic engagement was becoming a risk. The companies we profiled in the case study helped demonstrate the ways a brand can help create a culture of voting in America, while equipping its employees and consumers with the tools they need to vote, in completely nonpartisan ways.

This has been particularly critical this year, as we find ourselves in the midst of an election cycle like no other, facing a global pandemic, challenges to the US Postal Service, and significant changes in the way elections are being administered. Like the people they employ and serve, business leaders understand the urgency around helping to support a healthy democracy by using their platforms to make sure people have access to critical tools (like voter registration or vote-by-mail request forms) and information (like when and where to vote).

Ash: What kind of return will a business see from civic engagement efforts?

Spillane and Gross: As we found in our study, all of the businesses that we studied were able to promote civic participation in ways that were authentic to their brand, leveraging the assets already available to them. In addition to helping ensure greater civic participation in our elections, these efforts have proven to be good for business. Poll after poll shows that consumers want businesses to play a more active role in society — and that employees want to work for companies doing so. Whether you’re on the job, scrolling through social media, or shopping your favorite brands, expect to see corporate civic responsibility leverage get-out-the-vote messages this election cycle and improve consumer sentiment while doing so.

Ash: With less than a month left until the election, what should organizations that want to encourage voter participation do?

Spillane and Gross: Business leaders and decision-makers should remember that you don’t have to do it all to make a difference; doing something small is better than nothing at all. Brands have influence: people listen to what brands have to say about the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, and now, the ways they should be actively engaging in the election. As a company, you can do something as simple as send a note to your employees encouraging them to vote or posting a link on your social media pages to voting resources like HowTo.Vote, a polling place look-up tool, or the 866-OUR-VOTE voting hotline number.

Or you can go bigger: give employees time off to vote or volunteer on Election Day, incorporating pro-voting messaging into consumer-facing products, or making a donation to one of the many nonpartisan nonprofits that will be supporting folks through this election, such as Pizza to the Polls.

Ash: How can companies go from taking that first step, maybe a post on social media, to helping to create a culture of voting beyond November 3rd?

Spillane and Gross: Do something — anything — in the final sprint. Think about what more you can do: instead of posting once, post twice; instead of encouraging people to go vote, give them a few hours off to do so; instead of sending a one-way communication, ask for people to send you their vote plans or share their “I Voted” selfies.

As we drive towards Election Day, companies can help their employees and consumers get the resources they need to make a plan and actually get out to vote or mail in their ballot before the deadline. These are simple but incredibly effective tactics that will also go a long way to showing employees that leadership really cares about them, their well-being, and their ability to exercise their constitutional right to vote. We also know from traditional grassroots organizing that you can’t ask somebody to take these civic actions just once — you need a steady drumbeat of civic messaging to ensure your audience is taking action. We know this steady drumbeat of civic messaging from brands that resonate with all Americans will help lead to voter turnout this election cycle and beyond, in the long term hopes of helping change the culture of civics in this country for a more accessible democracy.

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