Chip Bergh is president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
We have so much at stake in this year’s election at the local, state and national levels. From building a stronger and more inclusive economy to tackling systemic racism and police brutality, combating climate change and reducing gun violence, the nation has so much work to do to get on the right track. And yet, the obstacles to voting in this year’s election are far greater than anyone could have imagined just months ago. On top of the challenges that are more familiar, like voter ID laws that disproportionately impede people of color from voting, Americans now face different challenges, including the risk of infection at crowded polling places.
Even in the best of times, voter turnout in the United States is one of the lowest in the developed world, and it doesn’t help that many Americans struggle every election season to get time off work to vote. That’s why I’m calling on all CEOs to give their employees time off to vote. It’s our duty to make it as easy as possible for our employees to vote, especially given the unique challenges voters are facing this year.
Democracy only works when people vote. This was something that our company’s founder understood 156 years ago. Levi Strauss was a Bavarian immigrant who settled in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. In 1864, America held an election three years into the Civil War and Strauss decided to close his business on Election Day so that his employees could cast their ballots. The result of that election was historic: Abraham Lincoln’s reelection ended any chance of a Confederate victory.
As someone who served our country in uniform, the right to vote is personal for me, just as it was personal for the founder of my company. Voting rights are sacred. They’re how we participate in our own democracy and seize control of our collective destiny. They’re an intrinsic part of what it means to be American.
As we did for the 2018 midterm elections, Levi Strauss & Co. is once again giving our employees paid time off to vote and continuing our commitment to Time to Vote, a broad coalition of businesses committed to increasing turnout by making it easier for workers to vote. More than 600 companies have already joined the Time to Vote movement, and I hope even more will sign on before November. This is an unprecedented moment in our history that demands unprecedented advocacy on the part of Corporate America.
At the same time, we recognize we must do more to address the new challenges we face this election season. Although states have eased lockdown restrictions, many voters may not want — or be able — to risk their health to physically make it to a polling place. Recent primaries have experienced a lack of poll workers, problems with voting machines and particularly long wait times — on top of the longer wait times that already exist for predominantly Black neighborhoods.
This year, Levi Strauss & Co. is extending the opportunity for our employees to use paid time off to train as poll workers. We are also calling on Congress and state governments to invest in and extend vote-by-mail measures. Every voter should be able to request a mail-in ballot, and states need to have the resources necessary to ensure those ballots can be distributed, collected and counted. We’re also supporting voter education efforts, so all Americans understand their options (including early voting) for safely participating this November.
None of these efforts are partisan. Facilitating voting is about defending the basic functions of our democracy. For years, red and blue states alike have had success with mail-in voting, and studies have found that it can increase turnout for both parties. Like the other initiatives mentioned here, it merely upholds promises already embedded in our Constitution.
As a country, we must remove all barriers to voting. As business leaders, we must help our own employees get to the polls. That’s what Strauss did 156 years ago, and that’s the challenge we must meet today.