Corporate America has come to the realization that it cannot afford to ignore the wave of voter suppression bills in Republican-controlled states. The CEOs of some of the most well-known American brands are speaking out against restrictive new state voter laws that kick people off voter rolls, make voting more difficult, and give more electoral power to Republican legislatures.
The GOP’s voter suppression efforts have been compared to the Jim Crow laws that prevented Black people from voting for over a century. They cannot ignore the systemic racism that was stoked by the former president and supported by his party. The Black Lives Matter movement buoyed by the murder of George Floyd makes it difficult for corporations to remain on the sidelines. Nor can they ignore the craven motivations of Republicans. The GOP is trying to limit voter access to counter a trend that is making it increasingly difficult for them to win free and fair elections. After years of reducing voter turnout with the ruse of blaming both sides, they are concerned about a historic uptick in voting. In the 2020 election, more than 159 million Americans voted, 23 million more than in any previous election. The GOP is especially concerned about changing demographics that will see more people of color and more young people who are eligible to vote.
Despite the dearth of supporting evidence, Republicans are trying to justify removing voting rights under the false pretenses of vote-rigging and voter fraud. Allegations of electoral impropriety were rejected by judges in 60 legal battles across the country. Even the former administration’s own Department of Homeland Security flatly dismissed these allegations as false. Nonetheless, disinformation including deceptive allegations of voter fraud from the disgraced former president has advanced Republican support for voter suppression. As reported by CNN, Georgia’s Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan recently stated, the false claims of election fraud from the former president and his supporters, “created momentum for a package of voting rights restrictions that recently became state law [in Georgia]”.
Georgia is the epicenter of voter suppression efforts because for the first time in a generation the state voted for a Democratic president and Democratic senators. In a desperate effort to increase their electoral prospects, Georgia’s Republican lawmakers recently passed a bill that imposes new identification requirements, limits ballot drop boxes and criminalizes offering food or water to people in the voting lines. At least sixteen provisions in the 98-page bill known as SB202 either block people’s right to vote or reassign electoral control to Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature.
Early in April Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that it was moving the All-Star Game out of Atlanta due to the state’s voter suppression laws. “I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft,” MLB Commissioner Rober Manfred said in a statement. “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box…Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.”
The Players Alliance voiced their support for MLB’s decision and they decried the falsehoods and disinformation that justified disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black communities. President Joe Biden also supported MLB’s decision and called the Georgia law “un-American” and “sick”. In a statement early in April Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms correctly predicted “the removal of the MLB All-Star Game from Georgia is likely the first of many dominoes to fall until the unnecessary barriers put in place to restrict access to the ballot box are removed,”
A host of Black CEOs also spoke out including former corporate leaders like Kenneth Chenault (American Express), Stanley O’Neal (Merrill Lynch) and Frank Raines (Fannie Mae). Republican CEO Dick Parsons, the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company, was one of the first to speak out against Georgia’s voter suppression bill. Parson was joined by 72 Black corporate leaders who signed a letter calling on companies to fight Republican voting restrictions. Parsons described the Georgia law as a blatant attempt to suppress the Black vote using a “ruse” that pretends to be aimed at safeguarding elections. “It’s just a bald-faced attempt to prevent or suppress the number of Black voters who show up to vote in Georgia. We felt as a corporate community that we needed to call the legislature out, hold them accountable,” Parsons told CNN. Black CEOs were joined by other business leaders like Delta CEO Ed Bastian who called the new Georgia voting laws “unacceptable”.
Similar voter suppression bills being considered by lawmakers in 47 states across the country. In all, there are 361 bills to restrict voting access. Nearly 60 of those bills are currently moving through legislative bodies in 24 states, and five have already been signed into law. In Texas, lawmakers have advanced a bill that includes restrictions on the voting process, particularly for those living in densely populated counties. American Airlines is among the corporations that publically opposed the bill. In response to events in both Georgia and Texas Fortune 500 executives including those at Coca-Cola, AT&T, American Express, Merck,, Aflac, and Dell, have all released statements opposing the new voter suppression laws. Some have even moved or threatened to move their businesses out of states that are trying to pass such laws.
In this second wave of corporate response, CEOs and leaders from more than 100 companies including Target, Snapchat, Uber, PayPal, and Reddit issued a public statement opposing restricting voter access. “We believe every American should have a voice in our democracy and that voting should be safe and accessible to all voters,” the statement reads. The companies are part of Civic Alliance, a coalition that “recognizes that a strong democracy is good for business”. The statement called for “equal freedom to vote and elections must reflect the will of voters…We call on elected leaders in every state capitol and in Congress to work across the aisle and ensure that every eligible American has the freedom to easily cast their ballot and participate fully in our democracy.”
An ever-growing number of CEOs are openly opposing voter suppression in states across the country. On April 14, more than 700 corporations, law firms, non-profit leaders as well as leading Democrats and Republicans signed a public letter affirming their support for voting rights in the U.S. The letter which was published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major newspapers offers strong support for voting rights. “For American democracy to work for any of us, we must ensure the right to vote for all of us,” the letter stated.
Corporate signatories including Merck. Starbucks, Google, Apple, Amazon, BlackRock, Facebook and hundreds of others, have collectively expressed outrage at the GOP’s discriminatory voter suppression tactics. “We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislative measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot,” the statement reads. “Regardless of our political affiliations,” it reads, “we believe the very foundation of our electoral process rests upon the ability of each of us to cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.”
PUSH BACK, TRUMP AND CORPORATE REDEMPTION
A wide variety of efforts are underway to address the issue of voter suppression. The mayor of Atlanta has issued an executive order to “mitigate the impact” of Georgia’s new election law through things like voter education and efforts to inform people of their rights. Some Democratic-controlled state legislatures are pushing back with state laws that make it easier to vote. A group of the nation’s largest law firms including Skadden; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; and Wachtell Lipton have said they will challenge restrictive voting laws. However, the most powerful action is coming from federal lawmakers. When the Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections they vowed to focus on combating voter suppression. Now that Democrats control the executive and both legislative chambers they have crafted electoral reform bills designed to safeguard voting rights across the country.
Trump called for a boycott of businesses opposing voter suppression including MLB. This is hardly the first time Trump has called for boycotts, he called for a boycott against the NFL when it supported players who voiced their concern about racism by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. He has also called for boycotts against Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, JPMorgan Chase, ViacomCBS and Citigroup. Parsons said Trump is “ignorant of history” and when asked about Trump’s call for boycotts, Parsons laughed and said, “Good luck, former President Trump.”
The fact that some of America’s leading corporate brands are taking on the GOP is significant given their historical support for the party and the former president. However, it should be noted that this is just the most recent example of a growing rift between the GOP and corporate America. Over the past four years, CEOs have occasionally spoken out. There were sporadic outcries against the former president when he expressed support for white supremacists in Charlottesville. They also opposed his trade wars and his stance on immigration. They even opposed the NRA, however, until very recently corporate America has been anything but a model of leadership. They welcomed Trump’s reduction of the corporate tax rate and they condoned an administration that systematically eroded American institutions. With few exceptions, they silently stood by as Trump eviscerated environmental protections and suppressed science. As recently as last November, CEOs were reluctant to speak out against the former president’s refusal to accept the outcome of a free and fair election. They finally broke with Trump and the GOP in the wake of Trump’s coup attempt and his call for an insurrection.
Corporate leaders can no longer support Republican’s increasingly unpopular positions. This has even led to the severance of the decades-long marriage with the Chamber of Commerce, As reported by CNN, the split has been brewing for years. “The Chamber of Commerce filed for divorce years ago, and the GOP has finally accepted it,” said Terry Schilling, the executive director of the American Principles Project, a socially conservative advocacy group.
Corporate America’s resistance to voter suppression represents a decisive and dramatic shift away from the GOP. They have come to realize that they can no longer afford to cower in silence and wait for storms to pass. Albeit reluctantly, they are coming to terms with the fact that people are increasingly expecting businesses to reflect their values. Gone are the days when corporate activism required moral courage, today it is silence that requires bravado. Corporations have a lot of leverage if they choose to use it. This is their chance to redeem themselves and show consumers that they have both values and a spine.
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