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When the death of George Floyd refocused public attention in the United States onto issues of police conduct and systemic racism, many companies felt compelled to make public statements of solidarity with those advocating for change. Far fewer companies, however, found a way to complement those sentiments with any specific action supporting the goal of racial equality.

In a New York Times op-ed published on June 12, Sendhil Mullainathan, the Roman Family University Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science, argued there is a simple step that companies can take to back up those statements of support: they can make sure all of their employees have the opportunity to vote, by giving them paid time off to do so. Mullainathan even drafted a tweet employers could use to announce such a policy:

“Fixing racial inequities requires policy reform. That can happen only through voting. Our employees shouldn’t have to pay to vote. So we pledge that every one of them will get four hours of paid time off to go vote this year. #time4voting”

Mullainathan pointed out that people of color may find it particularly difficult to participate in the democratic process as a result of a number of socioeconomic factors. Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to be low-wage workers, which means they are less able to afford to forgo lost wages in order to vote. Research by Devin G. Pope, professor of behavioral science and a Robert King Steel Faculty Fellow, finds as well that Black voters wait longer at polling places in majority Black neighborhoods—29 percent longer—and are 74 percent more likely to spend more than 30 minutes at their polling place. Paid time off for voting, therefore, would not only foster democratically driven change, but help keep people of color from being shut out of the process.

Although Mullainathan hoped the article would persuade employers to take up the idea, he was unsure of what the magnitude of its impact would be. Effecting a change at even one company, he felt, would be a worthwhile return for his efforts.

The idea turned out to have more reach than that. Tweeted and retweeted by high-profile individuals such as Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett, comedian Sarah Cooper, and director Judd Apatow, within two weeks the article had been shared thousands of times over social media. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof circulated it in his newsletter. And more privately, Mullainathan said he heard from various corporate directors who shared it among their fellow board members.

Some employers quickly and publicly embraced the idea. Educational assessment company New Meridian Corporation used Mullainathan’s hashtag to announce it would be offering paid time off to its employees; healthtech company Thorne posted a banner on its homepage, also featuring the hashtag, to do the same.

Mullainathan also circulated the op-ed among employers, and “a bunch of Booth alumni helped out in getting the word out [to employers] as well,” he said. As a result, he reported that several large employers have also pledged to give their workers paid time off to vote.

How many companies will ultimately join the #time4voting campaign remains to be seen—and how that may translate into increased voter participation will be impossible to gauge precisely. But “the idea is now more in the air than it was before, and people are picking it up and doing things,” Mullainathan said, “which is more than I could have hoped for.”

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