CEO challenges America’s businesses to close on Election Day

It’s still a mystery why so many people didn’t bother to vote in the last election. We’re nearly two years removed and the political media hasn’t seen fit to ask since the day after the 2016 election, nor has it revisited people who acknowledged passing on their right to vote in the belief it couldn’t make a difference.

Most every reason that people have given for not voting is a dodge, and lacking any real data, it’s hard to say whether efforts to increase the percentage of registered voters who bother to go to the polls will ever pay off.

Still, they persist.

Take Rose Marcario, for example. The CEO of Patagonia today posted a challenge to companies to do what hers did in 2016 and give employees a paid day off on Election Day.

“Corporate citizenship” gets a lot of lip service, but too few companies stop to consider what citizenship really means. It’s not just about being a good member of your community, crucial as that is. It’s not just about philanthropy, valuable as that can be, too. Citizenship requires something more. It requires supporting democracy. And democracy needs our support more than ever because it’s under attack.

We know Russia interfered in the last presidential election, and, flush with its success, will likely do so again. Hackers and trolls for hire use social media platforms to spread divisive propaganda and turn Americans against one another. This should concern all of us, no matter our politics.

That’s why Patagonia is making it a priority to encourage everyone to vote in this year’s enormously important midterm elections. Voting is a fundamental right enshrined by our founders, fought for by generations of civil rights activists, and defended by the brave men and women of our military. As Robert F. Kennedy said, it’s the ultimate guarantee of a free society, and it’s our responsibility as citizens. So, we want everyone to show up—our employees, customers, neighbors, friends—everyone.

On Election Day 2016, we closed all our retail stores nationwide, our distribution and customer service center in Nevada, and our headquarters in California, and gave all Patagonia employees paid time off so they could go vote. This year, we’re doing it again. And this time, we’re actively encouraging other companies to join us. Because no American should have to choose between a paycheck and fulfilling his or her duty as a citizen.

Midterm elections suffer from low voter turnout. In 2014, national voter participation was the lowest it’s been since 1942. Just over 36 percent of eligible voters showed up, and even less in a lot of states. More people vote in presidential elections—about 56 percent in 2016—but the United States still ranks 26th out of 32 advanced democracies in terms of ballots cast by registered voters.

Why don’t more Americans vote? For many, it’s just not possible to get time off from work on a busy Tuesday. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 35 percent of eligible voters said scheduling conflicts, either with work or school, kept them from the polls on Election Day. We can fix that.

There are a number of ways to boost voter turnout. While some states are going in the wrong direction, adding new obstacles to voting like ID laws that discriminate against students, poor people, and people of color, other states are making it easier. In Oregon, Washington and Colorado you can vote by mail, and participation has gone way up. Nine states and the District of Columbia (with more on the way) now use automatic voter registration, which clears away another big hurdle. There’s even talk about making Election Day a national holiday. But until that happens, it’s up to those of us in the private sector to do our part.

At Patagonia, our founder, Yvon Chouinard, realized a long time ago that inspired, effective employees need the freedom to pursue their passions—that’s why he named his book Let My People Go Surfing. Now more than ever, we also need our employees to be engaged citizens. All of us benefit from living in a free society. That’s what allowed us to build businesses in the first place, and it’s what guarantees us the right to defend our air, water and soil. So this year my message to everyone at Patagonia and all my fellow business leaders is: Let our people go vote.

According to the Census Department, 61.4 percent of the citizen voting-age population reported voting, a number not statistically different from the 61.8 percent who reported voting in 2012.

Marcario’s challenge probably isn’t going to go anywhere. Bills are regularly filed to declare Election Day a national holiday but companies have resisted because it basically increases vacation time to employees and costs them too much money.

And if you provide a Tuesday holiday, employees will find a way to take Monday off, too. Much like what many of them are doing today and tomorrow.