Getting Out the Employee Vote

Kitty McConnell

Last week, when John P. McConnell hosted Mitt Romney's campaign rally at the Worthington Industries campus, a great many blue-shirted employees were in the audience, cheering the Republican presidential nominee with the same vigor as their CEO.

Business leaders have been visible constituents for both parties in a presidential election cycle dominated by the issue of economic recovery. President Barack Obama, too, has his share of local business support and has made campaign stops across Central Ohio, including Ohio State University.

In a conference call presented by the National Federation of Independent Business, a nonprofit business association based in Nashville, Romney urged business owners to talk with their employees about the impact the Nov. 6 election would have on their companies' bottom lines. Since that call to action, several heavy-handed political corporate emails have been leaked, prompting somewhat of a backlash against managers who rally employees to vote for one candidate or the other.

But social media outrage certainly doesn't equal legal risk. In the battleground state of Ohio, what can and can't employers say or do to get out the staff vote?

"In terms of distributing information, I think a lot of employers go about letting employees know how [upcoming elections] could impact the business," says attorney Betsy Swift, a partner at Bricker & Eckler. As former chair of the employment and labor practice group, Swift counsels clients on a range of labor issues from management's perspective, including drafting employee handbooks and union organization, and has successfully defended civil rights and equal employment actions.

Most employers Swift has worked with communicate with employees about proposed state laws and ballot issues, approaching the conversation as an educational opportunity. A private-sector employer is within its rights to tell employees what managers believe the results could be if a particular candidate is elected. "Where they have to be careful is they can't threaten employees," Swift says. Telling employees they could be fired for not voting, or not voting for the "right" candidate, is a no-no.

Bricker & Eckler partner Maria Armstrong, who represents corporations, ballot issue committees and trade associations advocating for or against Ohio ballot issues, agrees. "Speaking from a campaign finance perspective, corporations do have the legal ability to have communications with employees," says Armstrong. "One of those is 'get out the vote.' "

Employers are required to give employees time off to cast their ballots, and there's nothing illegal in encouraging employees to head to the polls. Smart managers will be "very, very careful" to do so in a nonpartisan manner, says Armstrong. Employers should also guard against potential labor violations that might arise from, say, requiring employees to stay after work to attend a political rally.

Business owners and executives are advised to run their "get out the vote" campaigns past their legal department or consult with an outside attorney if they have any doubts.

Kitty McConnell is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

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Want to know more about this topic? Check out "The Election: Every Race has Potential to Impact Business," by Columbus Chamber President and CEO Michael Dalby. The October 2012 column can be found here.