02 Oct 2020

Q+A with Peter Palandjian (MBA 1993): A Day for Democracy

Peter Palandjian

by Shona Simkin

Long frustrated by low voter turnout in US elections, Peter Palandjian (AB 1987, MBA 1993), chairman and CEO of Intercontinental Real Estate Corporation, decided to take action. In late July, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he created A Day for Democracy, a non-partisan initiative that asks US employers to pledge to give their employees time off to vote and/or to encourage their employees to register and vote. We spoke with Peter about the initiative, his perspectives on democracy and civic responsibility, and his hopes for the future.

What inspired you to start A Day for Democracy?
It's bothered me since I was a child that only half of our country votes. It’s widely known that roughly 56 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2016 election. That makes no sense to me—we're supposed to be the shining example of a democracy. Other countries have national holidays for elections, or hold them over two days, or they vote on Saturdays. Here, the first Tuesday in November gets complicated with weather—even before COVID-19, if it is raining, or God forbid snowing, there is lower voter turnout.

One night in late July, my wife and I had just watched hours of television coverage of the country’s civil and political unrest, and my wife asked, “What are we going to do about this?” I said, “I have this idea of getting companies to give their employees a day off to vote,” and she said, “Well, do it!” I started making phone calls the next day.

What are the basics of the initiative?
A Day for Democracy is a three-pronged pledge: the first element is to give employees time to vote; the second is to encourage online ballot requests and registration with TurboVote or other responsible platforms; and the third is to spread the word to other CEOs or leaders via social media or phone calls.

What role has COVID-19 played?
The COVID piece can't be stressed enough. Polling locations are changing, people are concerned about their safety, and now people are also worried their ballot might not be counted if they vote by mail. My voting location changed, and had I not had access to the internet, or thought to check, I might not have known.

You now have more than 300 companies (representing more than 1 million individuals) signing the pledge—how did you get this off the ground and grow it so quickly?
The first phone calls I made were to influencers I knew. I wanted to get proof of concept with them—if they thought it was a good idea and got on board, I knew that others would follow. In those first two days I went seven for seven—Bank of America, the Boston Globe, the Red Sox, Fidelity, Hill Holiday, Bain, Putnam Investments. When no one said no, I knew this would work. Since then, it’s been amazing to see the range of organizations that have signed up, from small venture capital and tech companies to large employers like Staples to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Was your business experience helpful?
For me, it was really an efficient channel of distribution. In thinking about how to leverage my resources, I felt that with probably two or three degrees of separation I could get to most American companies by talking with a senior executive or a board member, or by asking a friend to make a phone call. By starting with the CEO, for example, I could get to between 20,000 and in some cases 200,000 eligible voters or more, such as with Bank of America, Staples, and Wells Fargo. This seemed to be something that I could actually be effective at doing. When I think about who companies are, it’s all of the employees—for example my company isn’t me, it’s all of us, it’s 112 people; 112 voters.

Did you meet with any challenges or resistance?
All of it was positive, but pretty quickly I found that the concept of a day off was a tough one. Finance companies can’t really tell their employees to take the day off if the stock market is open, and for organizations with essential workers—like hospitals—that’s also a big challenge. I found that many companies were already solving this issue by giving half a day, or two hours off, or allowing employees to come in late or leave early. There were many different approaches. We loosened the language of the pledge to allow for that type of flexibility, so that organizations could encourage their employees to vote by giving them time enough to vote and/or providing information to employees about how to use a responsible online approach to registering and requesting a ballot in order to vote.

Tell us about securing Larry Bacow’s—and thereby Harvard’s—support.
I'm a Harvard College graduate, and obviously an HBS alumnus, and I’ve supported the University in various ways over the years, but I don’t know Larry personally. I hoped he’d recognize my name—my sister in law, Tracy Palandjian (AB 1993, MBA 1997), served on the board of overseers. He responded to my email in about 10 minutes. It was very clear to me that he feels it’s very important to make voting easy throughout the Harvard community. After about five days of email conversations between us and other people in the University, they were on board and signed the pledge. I was very impressed with how quickly it came together and with Larry’s direct involvement. This was a huge honor, and also very validating for a University like Harvard—my alma mater—to support me in this effort. Harvard’s participation is also a real imprimatur for like institutions and employers such as Harvard teaching hospitals, other schools and colleges, and similar mission driven employers such as the Broad Institute or the Ford Foundation.

What were some of your takeaways from talking with other business leaders about voting and democracy?
Every day brought more and more companies signing on. I was astounded by how easy it was. What it tells me is that corporations are looking to be better custodians of citizenship and more mindful of their employees’ rights and their needs. This is not a partisan issue, it’s an issue of citizenship.

What are your hopes and dreams for this initiative?
I didn't have the time to set up the initiative as a 501c4, but I plan to do that after the election. I’m looking into taking a more legislative approach to make voting day a state holiday. A federal holiday might be beyond me, or it might be something I aim for eight years out rather than four. I'm not going to stop with this.

Ultimately, I hope that this becomes a permanent approach. I'd like to get substantially more than 56 percent of the voting population to vote. I don't know precisely what a good number would be for our country, but wouldn't it feel right if 80 percent or more of us were voting? Ninety percent would be amazing, but 80 feels like a reasonable goal--that would feel like it’s actually capturing our country. My goal is to get to three million represented employees, and I think that's achievable. But four years from now we should get to 30 million, and with other such approaches we can get to 80 percent plus. It feels like we're heading in the right direction. I hope that a lot of organizations stay with this; I will stay with this.

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