Companies Unite to Join Voting Rights Battle

April 6, 2021by Daniel Mollenkamp and Dan McCue
SurveyMonkey Headquarters in San Mateo, Calif.

WASHINGTON – Nearly 200 companies have come out against Republican voting legislation critics say is simply a blatant attempt to disenfranchise millions of Black and minority voters.

The chief executives of Dow, Levi’s Survey Monkey, PayPal and Uber were among the more than 170 executives who signed a statement Friday denouncing lawmakers who “impose barriers that result in longer lines at the polls or that reduce access to secure ballot drop boxes.”

The statement was organized by a business coalition called Civic Alliance, a group Mike Ward, its vice president, describes as “a community of companies working together to support democracy in the United States.”

The group was founded in early 2020 to help enable companies to get their workers registered to vote and off to the poll on Election Day, either to cast their vote or actually work as poll place volunteers.

“The election may be over, but the Alliance continues to exist, and getting involved in this issue is simply a progression — it seemed a natural thing for us to do after all our engagement in getting people to the polls,” Ward said.

The statement, and events that preceded it, mark what to many might seem like a distinct change in election advocacy as voting rights have become more of the corporate conversation in recent days.

Coinciding with the issuance of the statement, was Major League Baseball’s announcement that it would not play this summer’s All-Star Game in Atlanta as planned as a result of Gov. Brian Kemp signing new voter restrictions into law.

Prior to the bills reaching Kemp’s desk, activists urged Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Home Depot — all of which are headquartered in Atlanta — to take a stand against the bills.

Several companies did respond by issuing statements in support of voters’ rights, but activists said they didn’t go far enough because most also hedged, citing the need for elections to be secure.

When Kemp signed the bills, it seemed, momentarily, like the effort had been for naught.

Then last Wednesday, 72 of the nation’s most senior Black executives published a letter in major newspapers across the United States calling on their corporate colleagues to oppose the “discriminatory” legislation in Georgia and other GOP-controlled states.

“As Black business leaders, we cannot sit silently in the face of this gathering threat to our nation’s democratic values and allow the fundamental right of Americans, to cast their votes for whomever they choose, to be trampled upon yet again,” they wrote. 

“In a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the ‘fierce urgency of now’ and the need to move past indecision to action. For corporate America, now is such a moment,” they continued.

“When it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to vote, there can be no middle ground,” they warned. 

According to Ward, legislation aimed at preventing some people from voting has been a part of American life for decades.

“What’s happening now though is we’re in a moment when people are making democracy and the voting experience a priority in their lives — and that impacts corporations directly, whether you’re talking about it being through their consumers, or their employees, or the business leaders themselves.”

“Democracy is sort of trending as a priority across our culture and our society right now, and I think you’re going to see a lot more energy put toward democracy-related activity, whether it’s advocacy, or legislation or nonpartisan support for voter access,” he said.

Among those not taken with the new high profile of corporations in the voting rights fight is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell who said Monday that it’s a “big lie” to call the new voting law in Georgia a return to Jim Crow-era restrictions in the Southern states.

He then went on to warn corporations to “stay out of politics.”

That in itself was a strange statement, given that McConnell has long been one of the most outspoken proponents for the role of big corporations in elections.

But that was before companies temporarily halted giving to many Republicans after the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol siege, when former President Donald Trump urged supporters to fight for him and hundreds stormed the Capitol.

McConnell more pointedly warned the big businesses that have been responding to public pressure on their corporate actions not to give in to the advocacy campaigns.

“It’s jaw-dropping to see powerful American institutions not just permit themselves to be bullied, but join in the bullying themselves,” he said.

Still, even as the statement of corporate support for voters’ rights was being circulated, the Associated Press was reporting that many of the same state legislators who have pushed for the new voting restrictions, have also received more than $50 million in corporate donations this year.

The report was based in a new study from Public Citizen, a Washington-based government watchdog group.

Though it does not imply corporations are flip-flopping on their support for voters rights, Public Citizen calls them out for cementing the GOP-control of satehouses that have made many of the prohibitive policies possible.

Despite McConnell’s displeasure with it, Ward stressed that the Civic Alliance effort was strictly nonpartisan.

“This effort, like many of our efforts, started because some of our member companies were interested in making their voice heard on an issue that was important to them,” Ward said. “We worked with them on figuring out language that would work best for the most number of companies and then we invited the CEOs to sign on.”

As for the AP story, Ward said one has to understand that, “We’re entering a new reality when it comes to what people are looking for in terms of how the companies they interact with behave and have a voice on different issues.

“Now, in this new reality, I think we’re going to see some behavior changes. But at the same time you have to recognize that even a few years ago, there simply wasn’t the amount of attention on state-based bills that there is today,” he said.

“I think what you are seeing now is society being sort of in this new place where there’s an expectation for companies to take a holistic view where their operations touch things like voter access,” Ward continued. “And companies are working hard to figure out how best to show up in this new reality.”

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