In March, Slack engineer Erica Baker fired off a quick series of tweets about the upcoming presidential election.
“Ok VCs, CEOs, and company decision makers who follow me. Start planning now to make November 8 a day off. We need people to be able to vote,” Baker wrote, adding, “The fact that Election Day isn’t a national holiday is in and of itself an act of voter suppression.” Although the election was still months away, the idea took off, and dozens of tech companies agreed over the course of the summer to make Election Day a holiday for employees.
Among those who answered Baker’s call is Hunter Walk, a partner at the venture capital firm Homebrew. In mid-July, Walk tweeted about putting a reminder on his calendar to go vote and suggested that CEOs block out time on their employees’ calendars too. Ben Lerer, the founder of Thrillist, responded that his employees would be given the day off, as would those of the mattress manufacturer and self-proclaimed “sleep startup” Casper.
Other CEOs chimed in, and Walk began gathering a list of companies that are making Election Day a holiday. More than 180 companies have since signed on to participate, and Walk is calling for more to join using the hashtag #TakeOffElectionDay. Small startups and large corporations alike have agreed to give employees the day off, including Square and Twilio.
Tech companies tend to be a bit shy about entering the political sphere, but Walk says the industry shouldn’t be perceived as apolitical.
“Over 20 years, I’ve seen people question whether tech and specifically tech in San Francisco and Silicon Valley wants to get involved in the issues around them or just put their heads down and build apps,” Walk said. “To me, it’s always been clear that there are lot of folks who do care about the city, do care about the country.”
Of course, tech industry leaders aren’t the first to suggest that Americans shouldn’t have to work on Election Day.
Elections are traditionally held on Tuesdays because farmers in early agrarian America needed time to travel to and from the polls that didn’t conflict with market and worship days. But in modern urban society, our elections have long been plagued by low voter turnout. Activists believe this is due in part to the fact that workers can’t leave their jobs to go to the polls, and that moving Election Day to a weekend or making it a holiday would improve turnout. During the 2012 presidential contest that pitted Barack Obama against Mitt Romney, only 57.5 percent of eligible voters showed up to the polls, and, although the 2016 primaries saw nearly record-high turnout, it’s likely that 40 percent of eligible Americans won’t cast a vote for president this November. It’s a stark contrast to countries like Australia, where voting is compulsory and citizens face fines if they don’t fill out their ballots.
If we can keep it growing like a startup, maybe we can have a unicorn by Election Day. Hunter Walk
Non-profit organizations like Why Tuesday have spent nearly a decade lobbying for an election holiday, and Congress has made several attempts to change Election Day to make it more accessible for all voters. Most recently, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation last year that would make Election Day a national holiday — but GovTrack rates the bill as having a zero percent chance of success. Even support from President Obama, who has advocated for making Election Day a holiday or moving it to a weekend, hasn’t been enough to create change.
“We are the only advanced democracy that makes it deliberately difficult for people to vote,” Obama said in May. “Our democracy is not going to function well when only half or a third of eligible voters are participating.”
Since government efforts to move Election Day have stalled, it may seem like a pipe dream to think that tech companies can create substantial impact on voter turnout. But Baker, whose first experience with election activism was handing out voting information in New York train stations, says that tech’s influence may inspire other businesses to make the day an informal holiday. So far, Spotify, Giphy, SurveyMonkey and the Wikimedia Foundation have all joined Twilio on the list of companies giving their employees a holiday (or at least a few paid hours off, as required under California law). Baker’s employer, Slack, is notably not on the list.
“If tech can be a leader and lead by example, maybe other companies can follow suit,” Baker told TechCrunch. “If they started that trend and other companies continued that trend, maybe it would be more of an incitement for government and elected officials to give Election Day as a day off.”
Baker hopes that strong support from the tech industry for an election holiday will trickle down to companies whose employees don’t have as much political capital as tech workers. “A lot of people don’t get the chance to vote,” she explained. “People who work in the service industry don’t always have the opportunity to go vote if they’re commuting two hours, working eight hours, commuting two hours and then taking care of their kids. Giving people the day off to vote would eliminate that problem.”
Of course, the push to enable new voters isn’t just about giving the disenfranchised a chance to participate in democracy. Part of Silicon Valley’s interest in the movement probably has to do with stopping GOP nominee Donald Trump from winning the White House. But Walk says, despite his personal support for Hillary Clinton, his project is nonpartisan.
“I have been very, very vocal about my own beliefs, but I have tried really hard to make this nonpartisan. I care most about participation,” Walk told TechCrunch.
Walk hopes that more companies will join the list in the remaining weeks before Election Day, particularly companies outside the predictably blue Bay Area and New York tech scenes. “It sort of surprised me that we’ve gotten so many people so far. If I look at the growth curve, if I was a startup I would probably have people sending me term sheets. If we can keep it growing like a startup, maybe we can have a unicorn by Election Day,” Walk said.
Like Baker, Walk got his first taste of election activism during the 2012 Obama campaign. Walk created an app called Picswitch that allowed users to overlay an “I Voted” badge onto their Twitter and Facebook profile pictures, and the app was ultimately promoted by Obama himself. (Walk also ended up with tweeting privileges for several celebrities’ accounts via Twitter’s API, but that’s another story.)
Now, he’s hoping that high-profile companies will take the opportunity to model best practices for young startups. “Founders are always looking to say, ‘What are the best practices?'” Walk explained. “To be able to look and see these companies that are not just accommodating but encouraging participation is a strong signal.”
We are the only advanced democracy that makes it deliberately difficult for people to vote. Barack Obama
#TakeOffElectionDay got another boost from Ethan and Dylan Eirinberg, two brothers who saw Walk’s tweets about the cause and decided to get involved. Ethan, who just graduated from high school, built a website with his older brother Dylan to recruit other companies to join. The Eirinbergs, who also create apps together under the moniker Porch Brothers, added a feature that allows employees to anonymously email their bosses and ask for Election Day off, and are working to make the list of participating companies sortable by location and size.
“It must be off-putting to email your boss and ask for the day off. You have to be brave to do that,” Dylan said. “I thought it would be a nice thing to have something on the site where it’s like, ‘No worries, we’ll reach out for you.’ We get tons of requests every day from people asking us to email their company.”
The Eirinbergs say their goal is to see the project move outside the tech bubble and take off in battleground states.
As for Baker, she’s pleasantly surprised by the sustained interest in making Election Day a holiday. “I was totally surprised. I didn’t expect that to happen,” Baker said. “I just want people to go vote. The more amplification about giving people the day off to go vote, the better.”