Local Businesses Serve Up Lesson in Achieving Voter Turnout
By Sarah Kate Scribner
In last November’s election, the voters of Travis County stepped right up for a passion plate of political participation this election. And local businesses would like to think they helped to serve it with a side of incentive.
“The idea of getting involved in this year’s election was first proposed by a staff member back in June so we could try to be a part of the community and use our platform to get people excited about voting,” said Jeff Mettler, a partner for local pizza joint Home Slice. “After we learned that almost 40% of registered voters in Travis County did not vote in 2016, we just wanted to do everything we could to change that for 2020.”
From the first day of early voting to Election Day, Home Slice was among several other restaurants and businesses in Austin who provided free or discounted products and services to those who showed up wearing an “I Voted” sticker in an effort to encourage registered voters within Travis County to show up at the polls.
Home Slice in particular offered one free slice of cheese or pepperoni pizza per voter. This is the first time Home Slice has offered a voting incentive, along with a few other Austin staples such as The Soup Peddler and Easy Tiger.
David Ansel, the owner of The Soup Peddler, said this year’s election could particularly benefit from positive promotion for voting.
“Our country’s in a dangerous place. Everything that democracy and American exceptionalism has stood for, that’s all been shat upon,” Ansel said. “For this country to be recognizable in the future as a force for good, we have to get it on a different train track, and a nonpartisan offer (of free soup) to encourage people to vote felt like a good place to start.”
For companies that joined in later after the early voting period started – like bakery and bar Easy Tiger that gave out free cookies to voters – the decision was not hard to make.
“We wanted to be one of the community leaders, like Home Slice and a few other restaurants in town,” Easy Tiger marketing manager Rachel Johnson said. “It was a no-brainer. It wasn’t even really a decision, it was more like, ‘Which cookie?’”
By the end of Election Day – the cutoff time for each business’s voting perk initiative – Johnson said Easy Tiger gave away a total of nearly 4,000 cookies.
Similarly, Ansel said The Soup Peddler distributed around 4,500 free 8-ounce soups. Each soup had a ticket value ranging from $3.95 to $4.50, resulting in approximately $19,000 donated to the cause.
“We’re not (Mike) Bloomberg, but as a restaurant that’s been through hell this year, for us to put a lot of money behind this is a big deal,” Ansel said.
Mettler echoed this sentiment as he shared that Home Slice gave out over 18,000 free slices of pizza that would typically cost either $4 or $4.50, proving they were tens of thousands of dollars committed to encouraging people to vote despite this year’s economic instability due to COVID-19.
Businesses across the city have felt the financial strain of the pandemic. Places like Easy Tiger and Home Slice have only recently opened back up after months out of business and Ansel was even forced to shut down one of The Soup Peddler locations a few months ago.
Though the decision to follow through with this voting promotion has been a costly one, it has yielded positive results that these businesses have deemed worth the risk.
“We were able to measure how successful this promotion was because of how many people were inspired by it and saw the promotion on social media,” Mettler said. “Some people were posting their experiences on Facebook and Instagram and a lot of people mentioned that this was their first time voting, too, so I can’t help but think that we inspired some people to change their minds about voting that hadn’t voted in the past.”
In addition to the sheer numbers of free products that were given away and the number of new voters that have come out of this initiative, the businesses found the overall reaction from the Austin community to be encouraging.
“I think (the incentives) build a sense of community and a sense of the community’s opinions being heard,” Austin resident and voter Tom Barchar said.
Beyond creating a feeling of solidarity, all three restaurant representatives said they hoped their freebies would serve and be seen as a reward or a pat on the back for performing one’s civic duty.
“It’s almost like when you were little when you went to the doctor and you got the toy after your shot or the candy after your shot,” Home Slice customer Jacqueline Harris said upon showing the employee at the register her “I Voted” sticker. “This is your candy after your shot, right? Your free slice of pizza.”
Intent on promoting political participation across the board, the businesses also found ways to encourage voting internally.
At Home Slice, Mettler said the staff was offered three hours of paid time off for early voting – 63 employees took advantage of this opportunity – and up to eight hours of paid time off for volunteering, whether that involved working at the polls or registering voters.
Meanwhile, Johnson said Easy Tiger allowed its staff to vote while still on the clock and Ansel said he sent internal memos with lists of voting locations and encouraged them to make voting plans ahead of time.
As these businesses contributed to turning out the vote in Travis County, they believe they witnessed a shift in the county’s involvement in the political landscape.
“It does seem that Travis County has been setting records – not only for itself but compared to other counties nationwide – and I’m really proud of our community stepping up and having their voices heard this time around,” Mettler said.
Approximately 70.4% of the registered voters in Travis County cast their ballots for the 2020 general election, which marks the largest voter turnout since 1992. In comparison, about 65.2% of the registered voters in the county voted in 2016.
Bolstered by these numbers, Ansel is certain that The Soup Peddler’s voting promotion initiative will resurface for future elections. And while the jury’s still out for both Home Slice and Easy Tiger, Mettler and Johnson said they took immense pride in propagating political participation promotions.
“Democracy only works if all voices are heard and voting is really the best way to be heard,” Mettler said.
“You have to express what you want if you want to see change in the world and that’s really what we wanted to inspire the people in our community to do this election.”