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Facebook's voter registration push pays off big time

Companies such as Facebook and Google are helping drive up online voter registration to record numbers in several states. 

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    Voters cast their ballots in the Illinois primary in Hinsdale, Ill., March 18, 2014. As various social media platforms push for voter registration, some states say they are seeing record registration rates.
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Thanks largely to Facebook, states such as California, Minnesota, and Indiana saw record online voter registrations in September, election officials say.

The influx came after the social network displayed a voter registration reminder for four days at the top of the newsfeeds of voting-age users, with a link leading to state registration sites. On the day that the reminder first appeared, Sept. 23, 123,279 people registered to vote or updated their registrations online in California. This marked the fourth-highest total for any one day since the state’s online registration site launched in September 2012, according to The New York Times.

“Facebook clearly moved the needle in a significant way,” Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, told the Times today.

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In nine other states, on the day the reminder appeared on Facebook, registration increased by between two and 23 times compared with the day before, reports the Times.

Facebook is one of many companies that have promoted voting among customers and employees in the months leading up to the November elections. Car makers General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, plus small firms including Casper, Thrillist and DataXu, are giving their workers paid time to off to vote on Nov. 8.

Others are appealing to voters through more delicious means. Liberal ice cream makers behind Ben & Jerry’s in May launched Empower Mint, a new peppermint ice cream flavor bursting with fudge brownies and swirls, plus a dose of Democracy.

"This fudge-filled flavor reflects our belief that voting gives everyone a taste of empowerment, and that an election should be more 'by the people' and less 'buy the people!' " the company said online.

More recently, Google featured a voter-registration-themed doodle on Sept. 26. In the same month, Virgin America ran a PSA after its in-flight safety video that encouraged Millennials to use the plane’s Wi-Fi to register online to vote on issues that are popular among the younger generation, including renewable energy, LGBT rights, and gun control.

"Our goal is to get as many young people to register to vote as possible so we can impact the campaign up and down the ballot," Luis Calderin, vice president of marketing at Rock the Vote, a nonprofit that builds political participation among young people and partnered with Virgin on the aerial campaign, told AdWeek.

Many would argue that boosting civic engagement among customers and employees is harmless, and even valuable in the case of voting. However, some corporations are becoming more aggressive, sometimes coercive, in pushing politics on their workers, according to Columbia University political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. Since the Supreme Court’s highly controversial 2010 Citizens United decision, which lifted restrictions on corporate participation in political campaigns, companies have won legal freedom to require their workers to participate in politics, Prof. Hertel-Fernandez points out.

“A common piece of advice for new hires is to avoid talking about politics, sex, and religion in the workplace. But it may be increasingly difficult for workers to keep their politics to themselves,” he warned last year in a column in The American Prospect.

Hertel-Fernandez highlights several companies that have mobilized their workforces to political action, including Cintas, a maker of work uniforms and supplies, and Georgia-Pacific, a maker of paper products. Their tactics have included company-wide letters endorsing political candidates, as well as warning workers that they could lose their jobs if candidates with policies favorable to the company were not elected. In one example, a renewable energy company encouraged workers to lobby their representatives in Congress to renew a federal tax credit for wind energy, or else face a decline in sales.

As Hertel-Fernandez reported in American Prospect, the infusion of politics into work appears to be on an upward trend:

The Business Roundtable, an association of about 200 of the largest and most prominent firms in the country, estimates that the share of its members contacting workers about politics increased from 18 percent in 2002 to 66 percent in 2004. The Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC)...estimates...that the share of employees hearing from their bosses in politics has risen from 7 percent of employees in 2000 to 31 percent in 2014....And Reuters [has] reported that the number of firms contacting their workers about politics had increased by 45 percent from 2010 to 2015.

To some these statistics still represent progress, since the outcome of elections impacts national business regulations and ultimately workers. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee who ran against President Obama in 2012, echoed that sentiment to business owners on a National Federation of Independent Business conference call that year. “I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections,” he said. 

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