Opinion: NJ employers — you have a civic duty to break down barriers to voting

Shennell McCloud | October 26, 2020 | Opinion, Politics
Paid time off to vote ensures employees will participate not just in this election but in all future elections
Shennell McCloud

As early voting numbers suggest a surge in turnout in New Jersey and across the country, Garden State businesses have a civic duty to ensure their employees are empowered to participate in our democracy. Employers should help break down barriers to voting by providing their employees with paid time off to vote not just in this election, but in all future elections.

Of course, we should celebrate these early returns. Increasing turnout is good for democracy. Unfortunately, election results over the past 20 years show that turnout can vary widely depending on voter enthusiasm. It’s one thing to take the time and effort to vote in what many experts have deemed the most important election of our lives. It’s another thing to come out during a midterm or local election.

Barriers to voting have created the situation we’re in: The United States has among the lowest voter-participation rates of any democracy in the world. During the 2016 presidential election, less than 56% of the estimated voting-age population in the this country voted, lower than Turkey, Belgium and Sweden — among other countries. Former President Barack Obama summed it up perfectly in an interview with Rutgers University: “We are the only advanced democracy that makes it deliberately difficult for people to vote.”

When nonvoters were surveyed after the 2008 and 2012 elections, the most common reasons for deciding not to vote were “being too busy or having conflicting work schedules.” Which, of course, raises the question: why do Americans have to work on Election Day at all?”

Making Election Day a national holiday at the federal level should be a no-brainer, but a bill authored by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders remains stuck in committee.

Thirty states currently allow residents to take time off on Election Day to vote, but in many cases, the amount of time is just a couple of hours, and the time off is unpaid. Here in New Jersey, there is no statewide requirement that employers give employees time off to vote. State leaders can and should correct that before future Election Days.

Employers both large and small have stepped up to fill the gaps left by the government. More than 1,500 employers have signed the Time to Vote pledge, a nonpartisan initiative to make sure workers don’t have to decide between voting and earning a paycheck. Unfortunately, of the 10 largest employers in New Jersey, just three have signed the pledge: Prudential, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase.

I recently spoke with one New Jersey employer who has signed the pledge: Carlos Lejnieks, President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties. Carlos’s entire staff will have a paid day off on Election Day.

“Democracy isn’t a spectator sport,” Lejnieks said. “When we thought about the tragic events of this summer and this year, we asked ourselves: ‘what more can we do to make a difference?’ One thing that seemed obvious was to make it easier for our employees to fully participate in our democracy.”

“As an employer, I don’t want to add to the burden of hardworking staff, who are juggling so much on top of their job,” added Lejnieks, who is also encouraging his employees to serve as poll workers for the day. “We wanted to make voting as easy as possible.”

Other New Jersey employers should follow Carlos’s lead — not just for this election, but also for all future elections. If we’re truly going to practice what we preach as a nation that ostensibly cares about its workers, employers need to start removing barriers to voting and not wait on the federal or state government to step in and mandate it.

As for government, it’s not off the hook. Every state that doesn’t have a requirement that workers have paid time off to vote — New Jersey included — should be passing such laws. Better yet, the federal government can make this very simple by passing Sen. Sanders’ legislation to declare Election Day a federal holiday.