CEOs Unite to Oppose Voting Limits, Hardening Battle Lines

Hundreds of U.S. corporations and executives signed on to a new statement calling for a defense of Americans’ voting rights, the latest united backlash against Republican-led state efforts that threaten access to the polls.

Voting is the “most basic and fundamental right,” the signatories wrote in a double-page ad that ran Wednesday in the New York Times. Among them were some of the biggest names in technology and finance, such as Inc., BlackRock Inc., Facebook Inc. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Warren Buffett.

“We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot,” according to the statement.

While the ad cast the effort as nonpartisan and didn’t commit to a single plan, the effort underscored the growing friction between Corporate America -- a group historically in synch with Republican priorities -- and the GOP establishment. The CEO criticism of voter restrictions has kindled blowback from Republicans including former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell demanding that they stay out of politics.

Georgia Law

Measures to change how citizens vote are being pushed by Republicans at the state level across the U.S. following Trump’s unfounded accusations of voter fraud last year. A new law in Georgia last month requires voters to provide a state-issued identification card when requesting an absentee ballot and limits drop boxes, among other restrictions, with Texas, Arizona and Florida discussing their own restrictions.

Signatories include big consumer companies, such as Starbucks Corp. and Target Corp., and airlines and carmakers. Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP, also signed as an individual.

The letter stopped short of specific actions, such as halting donations to candidates that support restrictions on voter access or pausing investments in states that act upon such proposals.

Several big names were absent from the list of corporate signatories. McDonald’s Corp., Walmart Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. were among major companies that didn’t appear on the letter. A spokesman for McDonald’s declined to comment, while Pepsi didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

Walmart pointed to its Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon’s heavy involvement drafting a pro-voting rights statement for the Business Roundtable. That roundable “statement affirms that the right to vote and the integrity of our elections are cornerstones of our democracy, and we’ve also shared it with our associates,” the company said when asked why it didn’t sign onto Wednesday’s letter. Comcast Corp., which also didn’t sign, pointed to its own statement on voting rights released on April 1.

Some of the companies are members of coalitions that signed on. McDonald’s, for example, is listed as a member of the Civic Alliance, which is on the letter’s list of supporters.

Restrictive Measures

The statement shows the movement against voting restrictions is gaining traction. It was Black CEOs who originally condemned the legislation and began to push for action, including Kenneth Chenault, the former chief at American Express Co., and Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck & Co. Wednesday’s statement also includes nonprofits, foundations, law firms and celebrities, from Leo DiCaprio to Larry David.

“The freedom to vote is a huge priority for the public, consumers and employees,” Mike Ward, co-founder of the Civic Alliance, which assisted in the initiative, said in an interview. “Businesses are leading because they have their fingers on pulse of their key stakeholders and they know that the freedom to vote and health of democracy is a top priority.”

Critics of the new voting restrictions say the changes are aimed chiefly at limiting participation of Americans of color. And while in the past, many companies tried to stay out of political disputes for fear of drawing a partisan backlash, customers are increasingly demanding their favorite brands take a stance on issues that matter to them, from sustainability to inclusion.

“There is a budding realization from business leaders: Society expects more from them. They cannot do and will not do business as usual,” Meredith Sumpter, CEO of the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, said in an interview. “They are exploring a new frontier of leadership as CEOs in a very divided America.”

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