A Path to an Informed Electorate: Employers and Associations Work Together to Educate Employees and Voters

October 12, 2018 | A path to an informed electorate Luke Manderfeld, Business Record, lukemanderfeld@bpcdm.com

For Dave Kluesner, it was a simple question and the answer came easily.

Kluesner, the regional government relations manager with the International Paper Co., was asked why it’s important for employers to educate employees on political candidates and policies at the local, state and federal level.

His answer was matter-of-fact. The employer’s role is essential, he said.

“If the communities and the states where we have operations don’t value us, they can shut us down,” Kluesner said. “We understand that we operate with a social license. We understand that comes with the responsibility of being active members of the community.”

Kluesner and the rest of International Paper, which has operations around Iowa, realize the importance of motivating their employees to vote. It can help spur community engagement and advance the company’s goals.

But they aren’t the only ones. As the midterm elections quickly approach on Nov. 6, Kluesner and other business leaders are encouraging employers to place a focus on educating their employees. Employers often play an important role in creating a well-informed electorate.

Associations, like the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, want to ensure members have the information they need to educate others about the importance of voting. ABI provides non-partisan election resources to businesses and employees on everything from voting deadlines to candidate comparisons to share with others. ABI does all of this in conjunction with the Business and Industry Political Action Committee, BIPAC.

“Employees care about their jobs and care about their company’s success, and if the employers offer good, objective information, employees can act as a voter or advocate,” said Jim Gerlach, president and chief executive officer of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC).

“It’s especially important for employers to provide information because they have a unique and positive relationship with their employees to get them motivated as voters.”

At ABI, the scope is not nearly as large as at International Paper, but it’s just as important. ABI tends to focus on more local and statewide elections rather than federal races. Last year, during city elections, ABI sent out a reminder email to all of its members reminding them to vote and providing information about voting hours and polling locations.

When asked about whether it is more difficult to motivate people to vote during a mid-term election year, Nicole Crain, ABI’s senior vice president of public policy said, “Every election cycle is important to us since we focus our efforts statewide. We want to make sure it’s front-of-mind for our members. People are busy. They have work and busy lives, and if they are on their way home from work, they may not think the polls are open. It’s just doing things like reminding people that they have plenty of time to vote after work.”

ABI operates a website, IAVotes.com, which offers candidate profiles for races throughout the state. The organization also sends out weekly legislative race updates via email, which started in September.

Many YouTube videos, hashtags and election posters have ABI’s hands in them as well, like the #40DaysofVoting campaign during 2016’s election cycle.

“We want to make sure ABI is a onestop shop for election education for ABI members,” Crain said. “In Iowa, we have a 2.6 percent unemployment rate, and we want to make sure that doesn’t increase. We want to make sure people understand that some of the policies implemented over the years have been supportive to businesses and the hundreds of thousands of individuals they employ.”

As the midterm election nears in less than a month, Crain wants to remind voters about some key dates and times to keep in mind. Absentee voting started on Monday, Oct. 8, 29 days before the election. On the Nov. 6 election day, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. You can find all voting information for the state of Iowa at the aforementioned IAVotes.com.

“For us, it’s keeping our members updated and letting them know that their vote does matter,” Crain said. “Especially in statewide races; that’s where we place our focus. It’s educating people throughout Iowa to help them understand what businesses do for our communities, the impact those jobs have on our economy and the importance of knowing where candidates stand on those issues prior to voting in the 2018 election.”

Employers are an important piece of the puzzle BIPAC’s mission is to help member companies, organizations and partners engage employees in the workplace. To do this, BIPAC offers a variety of tools. Its member companies as well as business and industry organizations, including ABI, can use these tools in their education efforts.

“We have a set of technological tools and staff support services that help our members with whatever their employee engagement goals are,” Gerlach said. “All of it revolves around three areas: voter education, grassroots advocacy and [Political Action Committee] participation.”

Gerlach said the relationship between an employer and employee is one of the most important avenues for increasing voter turnout. And the numbers back him up.

According to the BIPAC post-election survey in 2016, 52 percent of respondents said information from their employer led them to vote. About 65 percent of those surveyed said they were more likely to vote based on the information received from their employers. And 83 percent of respondents found the infor- mation received from employers helpful in deciding how to vote.

“If the employers understand the importance of talking to their employees and giving them good, solid information about the candidates, then those employees are going to be better informed and more active in the process,” Gerlach said.

But with that influence comes great responsibility.

Gerlach said it’s important for employers not to sway their employees’ vote one way or another. While employees see information from their employers as most credible — 34 percent of survey-takers rated their employer as the most credible source of political information — having a clear bias can turn employees off to the process.

“That’s very important,” Gerlach said. “It has to be clear, good, objective and solid information about the candidates or the issues. Employees can’t feel like they are being told what to do.”

These numbers are even more important when considering the buzz — or lack thereof — that accompanies a midterm election. Midterm elections routinely see smaller turnout numbers than presidential election years. It’s especially concerning considering midterm elections may have a larger impact closer to home in local and state governments.

After the 2014 midterm elections, the United States Elections Project recorded the lowest voter turnout in more than 70 years at 36.7 percent. That registered more than 20 percentage points lower than the turnout in the 2016 presidential election and almost 5 percentage points below 2010 midterm numbers.

The stark difference between presidential and midterm election years has been evident for many years, but BIPAC and other political organizations are striving to close that gap little by little through the nation’s employers.

“They are all important,” Gerlach said. “If you care about public policy at the state and federal level, you have to care about who the policymakers are. Each of the election cycles are really important.”

Large and small

In late October 2016, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa visited International Paper’s Cedar River Mill in Cedar Rapids within a week of each other. They toured the facilities, talked with employees and held a town hall with lunch, among other activities.

While those visits were more high-profile, they’re just one aspect of International Paper’s wide range of political activities aimed toward encouraging voter turnout and educating its employee base.

International Paper is the largest pulp-and-paper company in the world, generating more than $21 billion in revenue in 2017. Based in Memphis, Tenn., International Paper primarily produces three lines of products: packaging; pulp used in hygiene products, like diapers; and uncoated paper, like the kind you use in your printer. The company has operations all over the world.

In Iowa, International Paper has four facilities, the biggest being the Cedar River Mill in Cedar Rapids, which is the largest recycled paper mill in North America and employs about 250 people.

International Paper has a strong focus on political activities, with government relations employees at the federal level in Washington D.C., and at the state level, where Kluesner operates. Kluesner oversees much of the Midwest and Northeast out of his office in Madison, Wis.

“Most of my work is at the state level,” Kluesner said. “And we place a high premium on getting our elected officials into our facilities. I also help with grassroots efforts to get our employees more engaged and impact state and federal issues.”

Among the activities International Paper conducts is a quarterly newsletter highlighting key federal and state issues.

The newsletter also gives a rundown of recent political headlines from around the nation relating to the company’s industry. For example, Kluesner said he recently wrote a piece on the state of New York discussing a carbon tax.

Also every quarter, International Paper holds a town hall meeting at its corporate headquarters in Memphis. At the event, a handful of the company’s federal and state government relations employees walk through key political issues in front of staff attending in person or via teleconference.

The International Paper Political Action Committee (IP-PAC) has been a huge point of pride for the company as well. Eight years ago, the company started recruiting “PAC Champions” within branches throughout the United States. These people recruited other employees to join IP-PAC. Since then IP-PAC has doubled in size.

These activities and information avenues, in addition to the large stream of information International Paper places on its IPVotes.com website, are just some of the programs the company has incorporated over the years.

“There is both a high monetary investment and an intangible investment in government relations at International Paper,” Kluesner said. “It starts with our CEO — he invests his own time going to Washington, D.C., and state capitols — and it’s shared throughout the company.”