The Business Community Must Act

The Business Community Must Act
April 9, 2021
By Marc Elias

When the Voting Rights Act came before Congress for renewal in 2006, corporate America had a clear message for Congress—pass the bill.

As early as 2005, Walmart’s CEO had written both President Bush and Republican leadership in Congress in support of the reauthorization legislation. “Wal-Mart is the largest private employer of African-Americans and Hispanics and we, therefore, have a particular interest in this issue. On behalf of them as well as our millions of customers whose lives are touched by this landmark statute, we believe it is important to move forward expeditiously.”

The Business Roundtable, a group that represents CEOs from major American companies, publicly connected the case for voting rights with the economic health of the country: “[O]ur main purpose is to promote economic growth. But one of the fundamental tenets is equal participation in both the economy and the political process.”

Just six years later, that same law came under attack by conservatives in the Supreme Court—but the business community was silent. Not a single for-profit company or pro-business group filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of upholding the Voting Rights Act. And when the Court gutted an important portion of the law in June 2013, few companies reacted with public outrage and action.

As voting rules and restrictions became more partisan, corporate America has largely tried to ignore the potential controversy, fearful of what standing up for voting rights could mean for their bottom line. The exponential politicization of the right to vote caused companies to feel pressure to stay out of the fight. While this reticence was not universal, it was far too common.

But we are starting to see a change. After the 2020 election, Trump’s rampant “Big Lie” and a violent insurrection at the Capitol made corporate America start to see Republicans’ decades of disenfranchisement efforts in a new light.

Over the last few weeks, specifically following the passage of a voter suppression bill in Georgia, I have been asked what advice I would give to a corporate CEO facing the growing threat to the voting rights of their employees, shareholders, customers and clients.  I do not pretend to have all of the answers, but here are my suggestions.

First, speak out loudly and clearly through a leadership voice in your company. I often tell individuals to speak out in the town square. In many places businesses literally own the square, its storefronts and signage. Use that real estate (literal and figurative) to stand up for what is right. Don’t confine your statements simply to tweets from the corporate Twitter account. Publish your opinions in prominent places, including local and national newspapers and on television, radio and the internet. Your statements should specifically acknowledge the threat of voter suppression laws in clear specific terms, not vague generalities. Among the best corporate statements are those addressing specific provisions of proposed (or enacted) laws that are unfair and antithetical to the company’s values and to our democracy. Statements should reflect that a company has clearly read the bills, reflected on their content, and offer thoughtful clear-eyed opposition.

Second, don’t just speak out, take action as well. Corporations are important stakeholders in their states. They create jobs and drive economic growth. Now is not the time to minimize your influence over state legislatures and other public officials. Use your existing lobbying power and influence to fight suppressive voting laws and to advocate for voting. If large corporations made clear to local government officials that voting rights will define the relationship between them and the state, it would make a real difference in what bills are passed and which ones are signed.

Third, recognize that threats to voting and democracy anywhere in America are a business concern and require action. Don’t narrow your geographic lens to only those places where you are headquartered or where the national media is focused. Georgia’s new anti-voting law is terrible and corporate outrage over Georgia is well placed.  However, it is not the only state enacting laws worth opposing, and businesses need to take the same actions against the voter suppression law enacted in Iowa or the bills being advanced in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and Texas (to name just a few).

Fourth, use your business power to make voting easier. Disenfranchisement doesn’t begin and end with these new voter suppression bills. Companies must pair their action against the latest legislation with innovative initiatives to make voting easier for their employees and consumers. In the late 1980s, McDonald’s printed over 1 million voter-registration forms on their tray liners in Ohio in order to try to encourage people to register to vote. What if every fast-food restaurant did the same today? Or, what if every internet retailer offered voters information on voting rules and deadlines at purchase check out? We know that providing secure access and monitoring for drop boxes is an issue in many places. What if every bank hosted a drop box? Or every grocery, drug, or convenience store with 24-hour video security? If companies can help customers find their nearest store, why not use their existing apps to help voters find their polling places? American businesses are engines of ingenuity at solving problems. They need to turn their expertise to solving the problems created by voter suppression laws.

Finally, do not be afraid to join the legal fight. For some companies this will mean providing donations and grants to organizations combatting voter suppression. For others, however, it should mean offering legal support by way of trial evidence and amicus briefing. Most large businesses have sophisticated legal departments that are experienced at gathering information and filing in court. When it involves their business interests, companies easily find the courthouse door. It is time they lend this muscle to voting rights. Providing litigation support, witnesses testimony, expert analysis, and data at the trial level can mean the difference between winning and losing.  Filing amicus briefs in support of voting rights at all levels can also make a big difference in how judges view stakes of a case.

The risk to democracy is urgent today. Every day we move closer to additional states passing even more draconian voting laws. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous “I have a dream” speech on the national mall, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Now is the time for the business community to act. There is no time to waste.