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Opinion | Ashley Spillane and Sofia Gross

Look to businesses to increase voter turnout

(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file 2018)

With a sea of presidential candidates sharing their vision for America’s path forward, the 2020 election has officially begun, and with elections becoming a more pronounced part of American culture, brands will need to decide how they will participate in the conversation. The good news for companies is that data show consumers want companies to use their platforms for social good — including for nonpartisan efforts to strengthen our democracy. The even better news is that the 2020 election will give businesses a chance to differentiate themselves by playing an active role in voter engagement.

In a case study just released by Harvard, we looked at eight companies who ran successful civic engagement programs in 2018 that helped increase voter turnout. We found that these programs can be internal efforts to encourage employees to vote — or can be large public-facing campaigns to mobilize consumers. The budget and resources needed to run these programs depend on the program, but one thing is clear across the board: Doing anything is better than doing nothing. And even the smallest efforts get results.

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Voter turnout hit an all-time high for a midterm election in 2018, with half of eligible voters going to the polls. Youth-voter turnout surged, as well as minority-voter turnout. Even though there were many hot-button issues that election cycle driving people to get involved, individual businesses’ efforts to encourage voting was at an all-time high, with more than 400 companies nationwide committed to getting people to vote in a way that was native to the way consumers and employees engage with their brands.

One company featured in the Harvard case study, Snapchat, integrated voter registration tools directly into the popular app ahead of Election Day. The company registeredover 400,000 new voters, including many first-time voters under the age of 24. The company also sent messages to all users of voting age from “Team Snapchat” with reminders to register and to vote on Election Day, with helpful links for users to find their polling place. Using the platform and keeping the messages on-brand for the app’s young users, Snapchat also encouraged voters to share photo and video messages about voting with their friends and followers.

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Another case study company, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, has run a year-round employee engagement program called CitizenBlue for the past 18 years, creating a strong civic culture within the company. In an election year, the CitizenBlue programming begins in January and ramps up before Election Day, marking key civic engagement dates like primary elections, registration deadlines, and Election Day. In 2018, the company also facilitated bipartisan candidate forums in the office during lunch hour, providing materials to explain what different state elected officials do, an intranet site where employees could look up key election information, and notes for employees who couldn’t attend in person. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s internal-facing program went above and beyond to give its employees all the resources needed to be involved in the election.

Even though none of these programs had the explicit goal of producing a financial benefit, all of the companies who participated expressed that the programs created some value, from brand-building, empowering consumers, strengthening employee relationships, or elevating the company with elected officials. Across the board, the companies that participated in the study agreed that civic engagement initiatives are good for business.

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Now that we have evidence these programs are not only good for democracy but also good for business, we hope more companies will step up to help increase voter participation in 2020. We also hope that our case study findings can be a resource for any company planning a civic participation initiative for 2020. We gained valuable insight from the participating companies and hope you do too. Alongside many others, these eight companies have paved the way for new companies to step up their civic engagement commitment and continue the momentum. Ultimately, America is best served when companies get involved and play a role in driving increased voter turnout.

Ashley Spillane is the adviser to the Civic Responsibility Project and the former president of Rock the Vote. Sofia Gross is a Technology and Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.