With the 2013 election quickly approaching, corporate employers are asking many questions about what they and their employees can and cannot do to participate in the electoral process. Both state and federal law prohibit corporations from using company resources to support a partisan political effort except in very limited circumstances. While employers must take steps to ensure that corporate resources are not improperly used for political activity, employers cannot interfere with an employee’s right to voluntarily participate in the electoral process. The following is a cursory list of some of the most commonly asked questions about employee participation in elections.
- Can we let an employee distribute candidate literature at the office?
Generally no. Corporations cannot use corporate resources to support a partisan effort except in very narrow circumstances. Allowing employees to campaign on company time and on company grounds can violate the law and subject the company to penalties and fines. While the rules are more lenient for partnerships and sole proprietors, it is rarely a good idea for any employer to allow political activity at work for a number of reasons.
- Can we reward employees for contributing to a candidate who is especially supportive of our industry?
No. Employees may make voluntary contributions to a political cause. No employee should be coerced or enticed in any manner to make a political contribution. Employers should be very careful not to threaten or reward any employee for his or her support of any candidate, party or ballot issue.
- Can we put information about voter registration or absentee ballots on the company website?
Yes. As long as the information is strictly nonpartisan and distributed in an unbiased manner, companies can provide voter education information to their employees.
- Can we put information about candidates on the company intranet?
Generally not. There are some narrow exceptions to the corporate contribution ban that allow an employer to distribute partisan information to employees and officers. Employers wishing to distribute this kind of information should consult legal counsel.
- Can our company support the local school levy?
Yes. An exception to the corporate contribution ban allows corporations to participate in nonpartisan ballot issue campaigns, like a school levy or one of the statewide issues. Activity such as financial contributions, distributing literature prepared by a ballot issue campaign, allowing employees to help the campaign during work hours, or other direct or in-kind support is permitted. Employers should be careful that the activity is truly nonpartisan. Corporations that support a ballot issue campaign are required to file certain disclosure reports with election officials.
- Can we place literature or a poster about a state or local ballot issue in our public lobby for our customers and clients to see?
Yes. In addition to the guidance given above, be sure the literature has a disclaimer and is truthful. Disclaimers must appear on almost everything that is created to influence an election. If an employer issues or distributes any publication in support of a ballot issue committee, that publication must include, in a conspicuous place, the committee’s disclaimer. Falsely identifying the source of a statement, issuing statements under the name of another without authorization or falsely listing an endorsement are all violations of campaign finance law.
- An employee wants to use our company printers to prepare a flyer for a local school levy. Do we have to let him do this?
No. Employees are free to voluntarily participate in the political process, but employers are not required to let them use corporate time or resources. Your company may allow employees to use company resources for nonpartisan activity, but is not required to do so. In fact, since paid employee time or corporate resources that benefit a ballot issue committee can constitute a reportable contribution for a corporation, such activity should be prohibited without express permission.
- Are we required to give employees time off work to vote?
Not necessarily. Ohio law prohibits any employer from interfering with an employee on Election Day. Electors must be given a “reasonable amount of time” to vote on Election Day. This does not necessarily mean that every employee must be given time off work to vote. Some employees are not “electors” and most employees should be able to vote before or after work. However, some additional considerations may be needed in cases where the employee’s polling location is far from work or the employee works an extended shift.
- Are employees who serve as election officials entitled to paid time off?
No. You cannot refuse to permit an employee to serve as an election official. However, there is no requirement to pay employees while they are off work. Employers may grant paid leave or pay employees for such services if they chose to do so, but employers should make sure they treat all employees equally.
- Do the election laws supersede our other company policies?
Employers should remain mindful of all other corporate policies when dealing with election-related issues. For example, distribution of information or literature may be permissible for purposes of election law, but company policies related to use of interoffice mail, internet use or nonsolicitation might prohibit it. Similarly, an employer may grant vacation or other leave to employees wishing to volunteer for a political cause, subject to existing leave policies. Employers should be careful to apply all policies equally to all employees regardless of which side of an issue the employee supports, and of course, a policy that violates the law would not be acceptable.