A slice of Mac 'n' Cheese pizza from Ian’s Pizza includes “crème sauce, mac noodles and cheddar.” It’s a sizable slice of cheesy pizza — it’s also, come midterm and presidential elections, a vehicle to get people voting, or, as Ian’s puts it, “Mac the Vote.”
Ian’s Pizza is a fixture of Madison’s late-night eats. The experience includes eclectic pies like the nacho-inspired “Macho Nacho” and BBQ-flavored “Smokey the Bandit,” and three locations throughout the city with doors that only shutter at “bar-close,” as declared by signs at the front of the Frances street location.
While the food may be its main focus, Ian’s, founded in 2001 by then Madison resident Ian Gurfield, upholds social values such as a commitment to diversity and reduction of food waste in its “people-centric vision.”
“Mac the Vote has its roots in our inadvertent involvement in the Act 10 protests of February 2011,” said Nick Martin, managing partner of the Madison Ian’s locations.
After seeing “tens of thousands of people marching to the chant of ‘This is what democracy looks like’” outside their business doors, Ian’s was set on a path of engaging civically with the Madison community Martin explained.
This civic engagement has taken the form of a donation program assisting “hundreds of organizations,” Martin said, emphasizing that in the last five years, Ian’s has worked with over 1,600 groups and given out $120,000 in “pizza, free slice cards and donation night funds to people who are improving the community.”
Another form of engaging civically? Making voting a priority at Ian’s.
During midterm and presidential elections in November, Ian’s is closed until 5 p.m. to “ensure [their] staff has plenty of time to vote,” according to Martin. Once the restaurant re-opens, Ian’s offers one free slice of “Mac 'n' Cheese” pizza to those who stop in.
“In the evening, our Mac the Vote campaign is all-hands-on-deck, so we want to make sure everyone has plenty of time earlier in the day to vote,” Martin said.
The initiative began in 2018, Zachary Chapman, marketing director at Ian’s Pizza, said.
“The biggest reason for [Mac the Vote] was that we wanted to encourage students to get out and vote,” Chapman said. “We just thought we have such a huge impact on and a voice for the students that we should encourage them to get out and vote.”
“If being successful means giving away a ton of free pizza, then, yeah, it was a huge success,” Martin said.
Though social media attention is an added benefit, Martin explained they “do [Mac the Vote] because it’s a really good time.”
“We have a blast doing it, and we feel good about the cause,” Martin said.
When setting up the event, Chapman and other organizers found Ian’s wouldn’t be able to “incentivize” voting by tying the free slice to proof of a vote due to legal concerns. In lieu of this, Ian’s decided to require that participants wear “any sticker.” Most of the time, those ended up being “I voted” stickers, Chapman said.
The event didn’t occur in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, but Chapman was impressed with its success in 2022. During last year's midterm election, employees brought pizzas to poll workers to show appreciation for their work, he said.
“We would bring in three or four pizzas and thank them for helping out,” Chapman explained.
Though Mac the Vote didn’t occur in 2020, Ian’s Pizza did become a polling place that year, according to Chapman.
“There were some places that, because of social distancing and restrictions in place, couldn’t have [polling] in certain areas. We actually used our spot as a polling place for some primary elections,” he said.
Ian’s encourages its employees to volunteer at polling places by still paying their salary or wage if absent from work to work the polls, Chapman explained.
Though Ian’s would like to hold Mac the Vote every election, the event is a “pretty big expense,” Chapman noted. Planning for every two years is easier, he said
Caroline Riordan, an undergraduate student studying sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Mac the Vote is effective because of the connection between Ian’s and college students.
“I’ve never had a bad experience at Ian’s,” she explained.
Riordan said incentivizing students to vote with souvenirs has, in her experience, been more effective than an activist walking up to a student and asking them about a voting plan, for example. Rather than just give away free gifts, local businesses could also consider promoting voting through themed menu items, signs or other advertising, Riordan suggested.
“The more people you talk [about voting], the more likely you are to vote or get others to vote,” Riordan said.
Offering students and workers flexibility in their schedules to allow time for voting is also valuable, Riordan explained.
“Giving someone time off [to vote] is incentivizing in itself,” she said.
Though Riordan believes UW-Madison already does “a lot to get students to vote,” offering dedicated time to do so, while not vital, could be an added incentive.
Martin said businesses can encourage voting, treating it as a meaningful practice.
“Maybe you need to close for a few hours, or give a longer lunch break, or just make sure people have transportation to get to their polling place,” he said. “But talk to staff and find out — really, make it part of the conversation and treat voting like it’s a very important act. Because it is.”
For Riordan, that act is unquestionably important.
“Voting is one of the few ways I feel I can make a direct impact on the state of government, especially in local and state elections,” Riordan noted. “We fought very hard for this, and we need to exercise our rights so they are not taken away.”
Ian’s encourages everyone, regardless of political belief, to exercise their right to vote, Chapman emphasized.
“I think the biggest part is that everybody has a voice, and we want everybody to use it,” Chapman said. “We’re not pro-Republican, pro-Democrat; we’re not left, we’re not right; we’re pro-democracy.”
Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.