One Stop Shopping: Rhode Island Initiative Registers Voters at Work

The Newport Mansions, Family Guy, Brown University and the Farrelly brothers are a few of the Ocean State’s more notable features.  To this list, we may soon add “Innovative Voter Registration.”  Rhode Island Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis launched “Voters in the Workplace” in the summer of 2008.  This initiative encourages and enables companies to host voter registration drives during normal business hours between August and October every year.  These months include the registration deadlines for both the state primary and general elections.  The Secretary of State’s office markets the program through social media and direct mail while working with Rhode Island’s chamber of commerce network and trade organizations for human resources managers.

So how does it work? A company contacts the Secretary of State’s office and expresses interest in hosting a voter registration drive for its employees.  In the weeks leading up to the drive the company generally sends out e-mails notifying its workers, posts links to registration forms on their intranet, and displays voter registration posters.  The Secretary of State’s Office supplies the company with all of these materials electronically, even the e-mail template.  Some companies do more: Cox Communications in West Warwick ran promotions on its closed-circuit television network.  On the day of the drive, staff members from the Secretary of State’s office travel to the company and conduct the voter registration.  A drive is usually held in the cafeteria or another gathering space in the workplace during regularly scheduled breaks, lunch, or directly after work.  Staff time spent on a typical registration, including travel, is about two hours.  Chris Barnett of the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s press office indicated there is no discrete budget for the program and “the investment is simply routine overhead.”  Dozens of companies have partnered with the Secretary of State’s office since the program began two years ago.

Barnett summarized the goal of the initiative, “We want to make it easier for Rhode Islanders to register. Because city and town halls — where people generally register to vote — are often open at the same time many people are working, our ‘Voters in the Workplace’ initiative meets the needs of employers and workers by moving voter registration to the factory floor and the main office.”  The Rhode Island Chapter of the League of Women Voters and The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island were among the groups that endorsed the initiative.  The Secretary of State’s office continues to receive extremely positive reactions from employers and employees.

As a policy, it’s difficult to mount serious criticism of this initiative.  There is little cost to the state, it raises awareness of upcoming elections, and makes registering to vote significantly easier for an increasingly time-constrained workforce.  All of us who have worked a typical 9–5 job can easily recall lunch breaks spent frantically moving about our city attempting to check off a few necessary errands.  These errands usually involved what I like to call “life maintenance” (i.e. going to the bank, picking up dry cleaning, perhaps a visit to the dentist).  I have never heard a co-worker say they were taking their lunch break to go down to city hall and register to vote.  I am sure some people have done this, but it is not something that many of us think about on a day-to-day basis.  With most registration deadlines occurring one month or more before Election Day, people often forget or do not make time to register.

Also, there does not seem to be a driving partisan force behind the initiative.  If actual voting were occurring in the workplace, one could see how this may lead to unfair influence from supervisors or even peers, but the activity involved here is registering to vote.  It then becomes up to the newly registered prospective voter to actually follow through and show up to the polls.  The timing is ideal because the momentum hopefully carries over into the primary and general elections.  If the drives were held in January, first-time voters may lose interest by the time November rolls around.  Ideally, the newly registered employee would vote in the primary and general elections and after realizing how easy it is, make voting a habit.

It appears Rhode Island is the only state that partners with companies to hold workplace registrations.  The small size of the state makes the initiative much more feasible than it would be in a larger state.  One can imagine how complex and time-consuming running this program from a central office in a state like Texas would be.  Larger states could, however, expand the program slightly by partnering with local election boards to minimize travel time.  Some states have passed laws allowing citizens to register online.  While convenient, this requires people to take the initiative to register.  Rhode Island’s program provides exactly the gentle nudge that many people need.  Currently, nearly 90 percent of eligible Rhode Islanders are registered to vote.

Now if only I could persuade my mechanic to come to my work and change the oil in my car…

Readers who are interested in more information about “Voters in the Workplace” should contact Paul Caranci of the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office at (401) 222-2357 or pcaranci@sos.ri.gov.

Mark Connolly is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.

Permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2011/01/19/one-stop-shopping/

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