Voting Rights Inspire Company Words While Actions Fall Short

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Corporate America is sounding the alarm over moves in Republican-led states to limit access to voting. But few companies have been willing to put their political might behind federal laws to protect those rights, underscoring the challenge to stopping such efforts, which disproportionately affect voters of color.

Hundreds of U.S. corporations and executives signed a two-page ad published last week in the New York Times and Washington Post that opposed laws that would make it harder to vote, underscoring friction between the business community and the GOP establishment. Amazon.com Inc., Blackrock Inc., Facebook Inc., General Motors Co. and Target Corp. were among the companies that put their names to it.

But of 21 companies that were among the biggest represented on the list contacted by Bloomberg, only one -- Levi Strauss & Co. -- responded in support of one of the voting-protection bills proposed in Congress. A few, including United Airlines Holdings Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Ford Motor Co., provided broader statements backing voting rights but declined to address the legislation. Others such as JetBlue Airways Corp. and Netflix Inc. offered no comment.

Voting Rights Inspire Company Words While Actions Fall Short

Even Merck & Co., whose CEO Kenneth Frazier was one of the principal organizers of the statement, didn’t provide a comment on either of the two major packages of federal legislation proposed to protect voting rights backed by Democrats -- the expansive For the People Act or the more modest one named for John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights legend.

Levi is “supporting federal legislation, specifically the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to ensure that all voters can participate in their democracy, free from discrimination,” spokesperson Kelly Mason said.

The clothing-maker is also “closely watching legislation in states where we have a business presence to see where we can best advocate at the local level,” Mason said. That includes includes Kentucky, Texas, Florida and Mississippi, all states where Levi has “larger employee populations.”

The contest shaping up over voting access will test the corporations’ commitment to political principles that don’t have an immediate measurable impact on profit-and-loss statements -- and could alienate millions of customers on either side of the issue.

Republican leaders, who are companies’ traditional allies on economic issues, have pushed them to not press the issue. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who has spent years gathering campaign contributions from corporate America, earlier this month bluntly admonished businesses to “stay out of politics.”

Voting Rights Inspire Company Words While Actions Fall Short
Voting Rights Inspire Company Words While Actions Fall Short

Florida Senator Rick Scott, chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, warned in an op-ed published on the Fox News website on Monday that “Woke Corporate America” would “rue the day” it opposed GOP-led voting legislation if Republicans regain control of Congress.

Executives also have other interests to consider in Congress, including a proposal by President Joe Biden to partially roll back lucrative corporate tax cuts that Republicans passed under Donald Trump.

Brian Walsh, a former communications strategist for the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, said he doubts corporate statements are “going to swing Republicans.”

“CEOs need to make decisions about what matters most to their bottom line,” Walsh said. “I would be surprised it they did” go to the mat on voting rights.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most prominent business lobbying groups in Washington, came out against the For the People Act, a broad voting overhaul bill passed by the Democratic House. The measure would make it significantly easier to vote, limit gerrymandering of congressional districts, require third-party groups to reveal secret donors and reform an election watchdog, among other changes. The Chamber said the proposal would effectively push some voices “out of the political process.”

Voting Rights Inspire Company Words While Actions Fall Short

The fight over voting rights follows a year in which major companies have grown more outspoken on issues of racial equity after the wave of protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And many corporate executives recoiled at the Republican effort to overturn the presidential election results as well as the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters. Customers and employees alike are demanding ethical stands from businesses.

After Georgia last month passed a sweeping Republican-backed law tightening voting access that critics deride as “Jim Crow 2.0,” Georgia-based Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola Co. criticized the legislation as “unacceptable,” and Major League Baseball moved the All-Star game out of the state in protest.

Momentum

Some of the organizers who helped coordinate recent corporate statements in favor of protecting voting rights say momentum is on their side. They anticipate more companies will follow through with support for specific federal legislative proposals.

“There is more of an appetite today than there was two to three weeks ago to discuss” public corporate support for such legislation, said David Clunie, executive director of the Black Economic Alliance, which helped organize last week’s ad. “In the next few days, there are a ton of discussions happening” on backing legislation.

Mike Ward, co-founder of the Civic Alliance, which also has been organizing corporate support for voting rights, said “scores” of companies are now considering backing federal legislation. “It might turn into hundreds in the coming weeks,” he added.

Some companies already have told Ward’s group they intend to back the John Lewis Act, which would essentially restore some provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that made it harder to change election rules in ways that disproportionately impact minority groups, he said.

In many cases, those corporations are waiting to announce support because the legislation hasn’t yet been formally introduced in the current Congress, Ward said. Sponsors want to first hold hearings establishing a need for the act, in order to address legal issues raised in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that effectively rendered unenforceable the portions of the original Voting Rights Act that the legislation would restore.

The message corporate America is sending will have a powerful political impact, particularly as leading local and state businesses follow, said Michael Waldman, president of New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

While businesses in Georgia largely waited to act until after Governor Brian Kemp signed the state’s law, the Greater Phoenix Leadership, an Arizona business group, has publicly opposed legislation pending in Arizona while Texas-based American Airlines and Dell Technologies Inc. opposed similar legislation under consideration in that state.

“This changes the political atmosphere on these issues,” Waldman said. “The business community doesn’t often speak up with a clear voice. So when it does, it can have a big impact.”

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