Brewing Democracy

Cafés Seek to Increase Voter Turnout with New Campaigns

Move over, Taylor Swift.

The famously formerly apolitical pop star has made recent headlines after posting to her Instagram account encouraging her followers to vote. On October 7, she wrote, “So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do.”

In the 24 hours after the post, nearly 65,000 18- to 29-year-olds registered to vote, according to Vote.org. Two days later, that number had grown to over 102,000.

Historically, young voter turnout has been low, particularly in the midterms; in 2014, only 19.9% of eligible voters aged 18 to 29 cast ballots, which was the lowest rate ever recorded, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. But many are hoping to change those statistics for the 2018 midterms—including cafés and coffee companies.

Getting Out the Vote

Businesses like Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Build Coffee have launched campaigns to engage not only young voters, but every potential voter in their communities and ensure they make it to the polls.

“We’ve been hosting various events in our retail cafés nationwide to get folks registered to vote,” says Stumptown marketing director, Mallory Pilcher. “We’ve created signage for our doors, postcards and buttons to encourage people to consider their civic engagement in the midterm elections.”

In the weeks leading up to November 6, they’ve also been offering postcard happy hours, where customers can send postcards to friends and loved ones encouraging them to vote.

“We wanted a way to engage with our local communities surrounding each retail café,” explains Pilcher. “Voting seemed like a no-brainer since it is often a topic of conversation in our cafés and amongst our staff.”

Build Coffee, a café located in Chicago’s South Side, also seeks to engage with its local community through its programming. Located in the Experimental Station, which is also home to community-driven non-profits and civic journalism projects, the café is designed as a hub of coffee and collaboration.

“Many of the events we do foster dialogue between journalists and the public, and aim to demystify journalism for people and empower them to influence the narratives they care about and are affected by,” says Build co-founder Bea Malsky.

On October 26, in partnership with the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, and BallotReady, the café hosted a ballot party. At the event, local journalists explained key races and issues, before the crowd broke into small facilitated groups to go through the ballot and talk about the races further.

“Build’s lucky to be in a building full of journalists who are working relentlessly to inform their community, at the border of two neighborhoods with histories of organizing and political action,” says co-founder Hannah Nyhart. “Offering a warm space for people to learn about important down-ballot races felt like a way to lean into both of those strengths.”

Rewarding Results

While these campaigns are inaugural for both Stumptown and Build, each has seen positive results so far.

“We have registered a lot of people to vote! That feels extremely rewarding,” says Pilcher. “Additionally, we’ve seen a ton of engagement on social media and actual IRL conversation in our cafés amongst customers and baristas alike. It’s really great to share a common space like a café to discuss the issues affecting our local communities.”

Build’s ballot party drew a crowd of around 35, many regulars and friends, according to Malsky.

Build Coffee. Photo by Davon Clark

“[We] were lucky to have a really full, engaged room,” she says. “We also heard from lots of people that they’d like to see this keep happening in the future, so we ran the event with an eye toward a program that could also work for elections to come.”

Nyhart echoes similar pride in the turnout and engagement of their ballot party attendees, and is hopeful about the event’s impact.

“If each of the [35 attendees] communicates what they learned to somebody else,” she says, “that’s 70-plus people who are able to make informed decisions on down-ballot races on November 6.”

In Hot Water

Come election day, Pilcher says she hopes to see a lot of “I Voted” stickers on customers—but they shouldn’t expect to get a free cup of coffee for doing their civic duty. Though seemingly well-intentioned, promotions offering freebies to customers who prove they voted technically violate federal law.

“Even though giveaways are popular, it is illegal to give goodies only to voters on election day in elections where federal candidates are on the ballot,” says Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California–Irvine. Additionally, it is illegal to offer incentives to simply register to vote when a federal candidate is on the ballot.

Recently, Philadelphia-based coffee chain Saxbys had to update its promotion offering free maple bourbon lattes to customers who show up with an “I Voted” sticker on November 6; they have since announced that all guests can receive a free coffee or smoothie—no proof of voting required. (Starbucks found itself in a similar situation back in 2008 when it offered a free tall coffee to customers with an “I Voted” sticker.)

Awaken, Bring Up & Progress

Stumptown, Build, and several other cafés around the country prove that companies can still encourage voting, without violating the law.

“Our workaround has been to offer free coffee to folks who engage in letter writing campaigns during the lead-up to the election at happy hour times in our cafés,” says Pilcher. Stumptown will also provide free coffee, from October 30 through November 6, to customers who prove they canvassed, registered voters, or are volunteering at the polls in their community.

At Build, Nyhart notes that while they’ve offered their space as a point of engagement and helped promote voter registration efforts, they haven’t attached rewards for customers.

Similarly, Atlanta’s Spiller Park Coffee has volunteered its two café locations as pick-up spots for voters in need of a free ride to the polls. It also held a voter registration party, is giving out “Vote!” pins, and is posting on social media reminding people to register to vote and providing information on early voting.

Rise Coffee—whose mission is “to awaken, bring up, and progress”—is a café in St. Louis that engages customers through its active posting on Twitter, while its Instagram page bio links to the Missouri voter registration website.

Working Toward a Common Cause

Through social media activity, hosting voter registration and letter writing parties, and simply raising awareness in-house, these and many other cafés around the country continue to build upon the philosophy of the salons and coffee houses of the past, where people could gather and share ideas.

“The coffee shop has become even more of an egalitarian meeting place to have real-life interactions with people about what is happening in our world,” says Pilcher.

Malsky agrees, stating that there is a “generative space coffee shops inhabit between public and private.”

She adds, “Friends gathering together to work toward a common cause is an extremely powerful social force, and we put together events at Build with an eye toward keeping that intimacy while making the space as welcoming as possible.”