Low voter turnouts in the United States have always bothered Peter Palandjian. After the COVID-19 pandemic and waves of racial unrest overlapped this spring, he decided to do something about the issue.
Palandjian, chief executive of Intercontinental Real Estate Corp. in Boston, is launching the “A Day for Democracy” project this week. It’s a nonpartisan pledge-card initiative aimed at rounding up employers of all sizes who will work to increase voter participation, in part by promising to give employees some time off to vote, or by helping them register and obtain mail-in ballots.
To start, Palandjian has used his network to assemble a who’s who of corporate Boston during the past month, all pledging to support A Day for Democracy. More than 100 employers have signed up, most of them from Massachusetts, collectively representing more than 200,000 employees. The list includes Massachusetts General Hospital, Suffolk Construction, Putnam Investments, Hill Holliday, Staples, Wayfair, and State Street.
The goal is to take this initiative national, though.
“With this start we have, with the tremendous companies around the Boston area, I think it’s going to send a message to the rest of the country,” said Bob Reynolds, chief executive at Putnam.
Like Palandjian, Reynolds sounded a bit dismayed when he talked about voter turnout. Nearly 56 percent of voters showed up during the 2016 presidential election; the Pew Research Center ranks the United States 26th in voter participation out of 32 highly developed democratic countries.
Palandjian said the increased reliance on voting by mail that’s expected this fall because of the pandemic underscores the need to get the word out, and to provide guidance to people about how the process works.
Palandjian doesn’t see himself in competition with various other get-out-the-vote efforts, such as the When We All Vote initiative, cochaired by Michelle Obama. Here in Boston, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute is also stepping up its efforts to engage voters, with an ambitious goal of becoming the go-to place online for voting history and information. Harvard has its own internal program, dubbed the Harvard Votes Challenge, and is one of many higher-ed participants in the All In Campus Democracy Challenge. The university is also on board with Palandjian’s project; Harvard president Larry Bacow said via a spokesman that institutions can play an important role in encouraging people to exercise their right to vote.
As Palandjian launched his initiative, he started with the people he knows. He’s had some help from his wife, actress and producer Eliza Dushku, in lining up some prominent West Coast players, too. Among them: Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Partners, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s beauty and wellness company, Goop.
Within just a few hours on Monday, several more Boston-area companies had signed on. Palandjian said he’d like to see the business groups that are endorsing it, such as the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, encourage their members to take the pledge, as well.
“It has been astounding how easy it has been,” Palandjian said of lining up employers to pledge. “People are looking for an opportunity for positive civic engagement, especially in this environment.”
In particular, he noted, companies are redefining their roles as members of their communities in the context of Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic. Employers, he said, are increasingly realizing they have a responsibility to tackle civic issues.
Linda Henry, managing director at Boston Globe Media Partners, was among the first business leaders approached by Palandjian. She said getting people engaged in democracy aligns with the Globe’s work, and she quickly signed up to help. Boston Globe Media employees who are voting in person on Election Day will be encouraged to do what they need to do to vote, including starting work late or leaving early.
In addition to its political reporting, the company will provide information on voter registration and locations via Boston.com. As a media organization that highlights the importance of a free press, “We strongly believe that we also need to do our part to encourage people to uphold another such pillar of democracy by exercising their right to vote,” Henry said.
The law firm Goodwin Procter signed up early, too — all seven US offices and 1,750 partners and employees. Andy Sucoff, the chair of Goodwin’s Boston office, said the firm liked the fact that A Day for Democracy was nonpartisan. Historically, the firm has always allowed people to take the time they need to vote. He said it’s now considering whether Election Day should be a company holiday, and an internal group focused on community service intends to build employee engagement around voting.
Joining Palandjian’s project was a no-brainer for Bank of America, as well. Miceal Chamberlain, its Massachusetts president, said the company already gives up to three hours of paid time off a year to employees so they can vote. “This was a natural for us,” he said.
Jonathan Bush, executive chairman at the telemedicine company Firefly Health, said he added his name to send a message about the importance of making time available to employees to vote, something his company already does.
“That’s like [supporting] a national movement that lets people go to the doctor when they’re sick,” Bush said. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll do that.’ . . . It’s good to just get it top-of-mind.”