In the running conversation about voter-identification laws, roll purging and the efforts to decrease minorities’ access to the ballot box, the ongoing dialogue often omits the No. 1 form of voter suppression: time.
Time makes it difficult for some poor and minority people to vote. Single parents, people who work multiple jobs and people whose employment doesn’t allow the flexibility for time off are often prevented from voting because they don’t always have the time.
Many Southern and Republican states know this and use it as a form of voter suppression. They limit who can send in absentee ballots (like Arizona, which made it a felony for anyone to collect absentee ballots, even with the voters’ permission). They restrict early-voting access (like when a North Carolina politician bragged that African-American early voting was down). But perhaps the most prevalent method of increasing the time it takes to vote is to close polling places.
After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, but before the 2016 election, Southern states closed 868 polling places, many of them in poor and minority neighborhoods. A 2016 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies revealed that African Americans wait almost twice as long as whites to vote. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that polling places in minority neighborhoods routinely have long lines, and some voters just give up and go home.
If time equals money, then the time spent waiting in line literally takes food out of the mouths of poor and low-income families. Time is a vote killer.
But what if someone could fix this? What if someone put polling places in poor and minority neighborhoods? Even better—what if these places already existed? What if these places already had people who worked year-round, who were familiar with the neighborhoods, and voters could cast their ballots down the block from where they lived?
And what if these places didn’t cost taxpayers any additional money? It might fix the No. 1 reason people don’t vote. It could be a cure for voter suppression and voting inequality. But the thought was just a wish written on a Powerball ticket, wrapped inside a lightning strike and buried in a pie-in-the-sky idea. Who had the time and resources to do something like that?
Enter Boost Mobile.
Unless you haven’t ventured past your front door, you’ve likely seen a Boost Mobile store, because they are everywhere. The company caters to mobile-phone customers who sometimes can’t afford the bills and fees associated with larger cellphone providers, and positions its locations in poor and minority neighborhoods.
In early 2016, Boost Mobile asked the advertising agency 180LA to come up with an idea that could benefit the communities served by Boost. The people at 180LA are known for combining social media and community outreach in creating innovative advertising campaigns. When Sony wanted to advertise VAIO laptops, 180LA went to South Los Angeles and turned high school students into rocket scientists. It took Michigan high schoolers and gave them the technology to find a sunken ship. So 180LA came up with a groundbreaking idea for Boost Mobile:
What if Boost Mobile used its network of stores to serve as polling places?
It seemed like a slam dunk. The stores were already located in high-traffic areas in poor and minority neighborhoods across the country. This would give voters a chance to cast their ballots near their homes. It could reduce long lines in poor and underserved neighborhoods. This could be the cure for the most prevalent form of voter suppression.
So Boost created a grassroots team to work on the project. Because its stores are individually owned and operated, the company reached out to its partners around the country for permission. It contacted local organizations and advocates to tell them about the idea. It funded a government-outreach team.
Stop. Read that again.
Boost Mobile didn’t recruit and organize volunteers to solve the problem of voter inequality. It paid for it. Out of its own pocket. In this bottom-line, corporate age of dollars over democracy, Boost hired 30 full-time employees to fight voter suppression.
The next step was to reach out to election officials. Contrary to popular belief, there is no “national election.” Elections are not federally controlled. There aren’t even standard regulations (except that the polling places be handicapped-accessible). Each is organized and overseen by individual county election boards.
Boost Mobile figured this wouldn’t be a problem. After all, the people on the county election boards are invested in voting. In theory, they would want everyone to vote, and would love to solve the problems of long lines and insufficient polling places by having ready-made polling places. They’d be thrilled to cure voter inequality, right?
Apparently America doesn’t work like that.
Boost Mobile’s government-outreach team contacted 817 counties in the 48 states where their stores are located, and more than 99 percent of them said, “No, thank you.” The most cited reason? The county election boards mainly said that that they “had enough” polling places.
It was almost as if they didn’t want people to vote.
Boost offered to have the individual store employees trained as poll workers. Still the answer was no. The company reiterated that it wouldn’t cost the counties a dime. Still the election boards said no. “In total, we offered over 5,000 locations in 48 states,” said Aine Carey, who led Boost Mobile’s government-outreach efforts. “Most of them declined.”
Guess how many counties finally accepted Boost’s offer to turn its stores into local polling places. Maybe 400? 200? A measly 100?
Six. That’s it. A county in California allowed four stores, and when Boost teamed up with Turbovote and Social Works (the charity founded by Chance the Rapper), they converted two stores in Chicago to polling places.
Those districts had the highest voter turnout in the history of Chicago.
The people at Boost and 180LA were not dismayed by the response. “In the end, we created six voting stations that hadn’t existed before,” said Carey. “It was an unprecedented civic action; credible demonstration of a company who stood up for a minority ... for voter equality.”
Brian Farkas at 180LA believes that the Boost Your Voice campaign was so innovative that it could be replicated by other companies and organizations: “Why wouldn’t every company want to do this? We’ve shown it can work.” The campaign recently won Ad Age’s Campaign of the Year award.
Jeremy Agers, Boost Mobile’s senior manager for social media and brand integration, said that the company considers the campaign a success. “We will definitely do it in the next election,” he told The Root. “This was always about more than selling telephones. It was about righting a wrong for our customers.”
But Boost’s campaign opened the door to bigger questions. If the answer to all of America’s problems is “the free market,” when a private company solved one of democracy’s biggest injustices, why wouldn’t anyone listen? If long lines and insufficient polling places plague election boards, why wouldn’t they fix it when someone dropped a totally free solution in their laps? If they reject the answer, then are they concerned with the problem?
This all leads to the biggest question of the entire Boost Your Voice campaign: Is voter inequality really the biggest obstacle to fair and equal elections ... or is it by design?
View 180LA’s video about the campaign: