Fostering an Engaged Electorate in the Workplace

October 9, 2020 | Fostering an engaged electorate in the workplace Gigi Wood,

Creating a better tomorrow for the state of Iowa requires efforts on multiple fronts. Safe communities, strong schools and profitable businesses are formed through exhaustive work by many in various public and private organizations. One of the ways to build healthy communities is through public policy.

Local, state and federal laws and regulations establish public policies for communities. Those policies are advocated for by various groups and voted on by elected officials. Naturally, voting for politicians with effective public policy platforms is important to grow successful local communities and a robust state.

Addressing elections and voting in the workplace

In such a divisive political climate, it can be difficult to approach the topic of politics and public policy, especially in the workplace. An engaged electorate can be very powerful, and educated employees can use their ballots to lobby for the public policy positions to improve communities and build stronger businesses. For many employers, it makes sense to encourage employees to vote. Addressing the topic may seem daunting to some employers, but there are programs available to help start that conversation.

IA Votes is a nonpartisan initiative that helps employers talk to employees and the greater community about the people and policies that affect their jobs and industries. The initiative, also known as the Iowa Prosperity Project, is a state partner of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) and is sponsored by Economic Progress for Iowa’s Citizens (EPIC). EPIC is a nonprofit created by several businesses and statewide business associations that advocate for a pro-business environment, but for this initiative, it does not endorse or oppose any candidates. Instead of making endorsements, the program works to educate where and when to vote and what issues are on the ballot.

“We believe when employers and employees share information in a nonpartisan way, more Iowans will appreciate the importance of state and federal elections,” the IA Votes website states.

IA Votes is also an Employee Voter Registration Week partner, joining business organizations across the country in the effort to increase the number of registered voters. IA Votes provides the business community with messaging and graphics on registering to vote and reminding employees of upcoming Iowa dates and deadlines.

As residents of a battleground state, Iowans are well aware of the upcoming election; political ads have been relentless this season. A Pew Research Center study published in August found voters are highly engaged this year. When it comes to the presidential election, 83% said it “really matters” who wins the presidency; more so than any election during the past 20 years. That figure is typically between 50% and 74%.

While most voters understand the importance of the election, some may not know about the issues on the ballot that could affect their community or employer. IA Votes aims to give employers tools to educate employees on how to vote and on the issues that could affect their families and their jobs.

Starting the dialogue

BIPAC’s goal is to improve the political climate for the business community by providing insight, strategic guidance and comprehensive resources to make it easier for government affairs professionals to execute their own public policy goals, says Dalexi Carrillo, manager of member and partner advocacy services for BIPAC.

The group partners with the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI) to provide employers with informative resources on the state legislative session and get out the vote materials leading up to Election Day.

“IA Votes is ABI’s advocacy and voter education program,” Carrillo said. “Over the years, BIPAC has collaborated with IA Votes on a number of initiatives.”

The two groups worked together to create the IA Caucus Toolkit, which houses resources and messaging around the caucus process that employers can include in communications to employees, for example.

Employers can communicate with employees about voting in a variety of ways, she said.

“It’s important to remember to stay true to the organization’s culture and tailor when necessary,” she said.

She suggested using email, newsletters and digital monitor signs as useful methods of communicating about voting.

“This can be as simple as an email blast with voting reminders and links to find polling places, registration information and the state’s election website,” she said. “An employer might also consider coordinating with their HR team to include voting information in companywide emails with other organization updates.”

Newsletters can offer how-to articles on participating in the election.

“Besides upcoming deadlines, newsletters can offer information on how to volunteer as a poll worker, guidelines on early voting and voting by absentee ballot, upcoming candidate town halls, updates on the key races, and a rundown of the issues important to the industry and organization,” Carrillo said.

Employers with in-person facilities can set up digital monitor signs with election dates, deadlines, polling locations and other voting information. Digital monitor signs can be placed in entrance ways, breakrooms and other common areas to serve as regular reminders to get out the vote.

Employers can also post similar reminders on social media internally and externally.

“Internal social communication channels can be leveraged to provide regular reminders on upcoming deadlines and to answer questions that employees may have on voting,” she said. “In the end, the goal is to provide employees with the information they need to know to cast an informed ballot.”

BIPAC publishes a biennial “Employer to Employee Engagement Study” that illustrates the importance of employee engagement. In 2018, the survey found that 61% of individuals who received information from their employer said it made them more likely to vote and 84% said it was very or somewhat helpful in deciding which candidate(s) to vote for in the election, Carrillo said.

“Moreover, the study found that employees at a company with an already established employer-to-employee program are also more likely to agree that their employer should be active in promoting public policy and more likely to have voted in the 2018 election,” she said. “It’s clear that employees want to hear from their employer on elections and politics, but they do not want to be told who or what to vote for. The information provided to them should be presented in a nonpartisan and objective way so that they are empowered to make their own decisions.”

Hosting voting events in the workplace

Employers can even host events to educate and excite employees about the voting process. Carrillo suggested events such as hosting voter registration drives, candidate meet-and-greets and town halls.

“These events not only guide voters through the election process, but they also expose them to the candidates running in their area and where they stand on the issues,” she said. “However, in the age of COVID-19 and social distancing, employers may need to get a bit creative. If they wish to provide more information on voter registration, organizations should consider holding virtual ‘hangouts,’ where they discuss and answer questions on voter registration and how to vote according to state guidelines. Webinars with candidates and elected officials can also inform employees of the individuals running in their area and where they stand on the issues that impact them, their jobs, and families.”

Advocating for growth, rebuilding

The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance has long been a partner with ABI and BIPAC in IA Votes.

“While the Economic Alliance is a nonpartisan organization and we don’t endorse candidates, we are heavily involved in voter education,” said Doug Neumann, executive director of the Economic Alliance. “We use a lot of different resources and avenues to help us educate our members on where candidates stand on issues and we encourage our members to vote for candidates who support policies that grow our region and state.”

With 1,200 members, most of which are small businesses, the Economic Alliance can provide a louder voice when advocating for policy issues than what many Eastern Iowa companies could do on their own.

“As policies are discussed at the local, state and federal levels, we want a seat at the table to influence and shape the policies that directly affect our businesses and community,” Neumann said. “If we’re not at the table, someone else will be.”

Since the devastating derecho on Aug. 10, the organization’s focus has shifted to recovery efforts. In Iowa, the high-wind storm hit Cedar Rapids the hardest, causing millions of dollars in damage.

“On both the state and federal level, we’ve shifted to a recovery focus — recovery efforts due to the pandemic and now derecho,” Neumann said. “Both phenomena hit our area hard, and we’re pushing for polices that ease the way for employers to rebound, add and keep their employees, and grow their businesses. On the state level, we’re ramping up efforts to support quality of life initiatives because we see keeping and attracting workforce as a key to our recovery and growth efforts. Initiatives that make a community more attractive for someone can be everything from recreation amenities to broadband connectivity.”

On a federal level, the group pushes for immigration and criminal justice reform, as well as infrastructure investment.

“We’re advocating for solution-oriented policymakers at all levels of government,” Neumann said. “The political arena has become so toxic that it’s hampering good policies from becoming realities. We’re all for debates, disagreements and discussions — it’s the way we work out issues and come to agreements. But those debates, disagreements and discussions are only productive if they are civil. We need to continue to push policymakers to return to civility and compromise to achieve the best results.”

Each year, the Economic Alliance publishes an election/voter guide that educates readers about policy issues and encourages people to vote.

“We see one of our roles as facilitating access to policymakers for our members, not just during election time, but all year round,” said Barbra Solberg, public policy strategist at the Economic Alliance. “As a business advocacy organization, it is our responsibility to encourage our members and their employees to be engaged. And it’s our job to listen to them to learn about their needs. The best and most realistic ideas for policy change and reform come from people who are affected by the policies day to day. So listening is an important role for us so we can tell their stories to policymakers and influence change.”

Voting advocacy at Vermeer

At agricultural and industrial manufacturer Vermeer Corp. in Pella, employees have long been encouraged to vote. The company also offers information on issues that affect the company, such as infrastructure, workforce education and international trade.

“We got involved several years ago and we were really looking for a way that we could provide two things; one was a way for our team members to easily find information about how to vote, where to vote, why to vote and to get to know candidates . . . The other reason was that if there was an issue that was relevant and important to speak out on, it allowed employees a way, with a few clicks, for their voices to be heard,” said Daryl Bouwkamp, Vermeer’s senior director of international business development and government affairs. “That’s a no-brainer for us, to apply an IA Votes-type tool for our team members to make sure they’ve got the right information that’s up to date.”

Vermeer was able to seamlessly incorporate the program into its intranet system, giving employees easy access to the information. IA Votes provides information on state and federal candidates and issues, while BIPAC focuses on issues on the federal level. Vermeer provides additional information on issues if needed.

“BIPAC takes a very nonpartisan approach to things, so they stay at a pretty basic level with some of the issues,” Bouwkamp said. “If we really want to educate a little bit further or more in-depth for manufacturing purposes or a certain segment that we serve, sometimes we get more in-depth, not only for our own understanding, but to provide examples to our employees about how it affects them, how it affects our company, how it affects our customers.”

The programs also train employers on what specifically can be discussed with employees, and what messaging goes too far.

“With BIPAC, there's an opportunity also to educate employers on what's appropriate to talk to team members about, what's inappropriate with election law and corporate law in mind,” Bouwkamp said. “Employers can also be educated about making sure they are appropriate in their communications with team members about voting and related issues.”

Vermeer strives to keep employees actively engaged in national and local issues that have an impact on the company and their communities.

“Informed and active citizens make for a stronger country, a stronger economy, a stronger workforce,” he said. “Civic education, civic knowledge and civic participation are pretty essential for the continued prosperity of the United States, which you can drill down to our state, to our city, to our family. We want to make sure we meet our responsibility of providing good education and opportunities for our team members to play a meaningful role.”