In the wake of Georgia’s legislature enacting its omnibus voter suppression law, America’s corporate leaders wanted the public to think that they cared about voting rights. In a full-page print advertisement, they announced they “stand for democracy.”
They also told us how we should feel: “We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote,” the titans of industry proclaimed, “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.”
What they did not tell us then, and still have not explained, is what they are actually doing to protect voting rights. As it turns out, this is because they are not doing much of anything. Big Business has offered its thoughts and prayers for our democracy and is ready to return to making money.
Suppressive legislation similar to the one that passed in Georgia has followed in Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Montana and, although Democrats have staved it off for now, likely soon in Texas. Yet, the business community has mostly been silent. Presumably, they have been examining their feelings — the pressure they feel from Republican legislatures, the feeling that their customers are paying less attention and the feeling that having signed a statement about feelings they have done enough.
The state legislatures, however, are not expressing their feelings — they are enacting laws. These laws are not aimed at how voters feel, but at their right to participate in the democratic process and to exercise their most fundamental right to vote. Their goal is simple: disenfranchise Black, Brown and young voters and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions and elections.
If big businesses want to support voting rights and democracy, they should start supporting voting rights and democracy. If they want to fight voter suppression, they should start fighting voter suppression. The time for self-congratulatory advertisements and press statements has passed. Our democracy is in peril. If business leaders want to be part of the solution, they need to start flexing their corporate muscle and actually do the work.
In the weeks and months to come, Congress will consider two bills: the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act. Both are essential tools in the fight against voter suppression and the restoration of democracy. The business community should publicly support these bills and provide financial and strategic resources to ensure their passage. They should also pressure their trade associations to do the same.
Big Business has done this before. When the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was up for renewal before Congress in 2006, the business community was a key ally to the voting rights community. The trade association representing leaders from the largest American companies took a strong public stand in urging its renewal. The CEO of Walmart personally wrote a letter to President Bush detailing why reauthorization of the VRA was important to the company’s employees and customers.
When the 2006 law passed the Senate 98-0 and was signed by President Bush, headlines read: “Voting Rights Act Renewed with Help of Big Business” and “Corporate executives played key role in passage of the VRA.” There will be no similar headlines this year if Congress enacts the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Don’t let those splashy full-page ads and statements of solidarity on Instagram fool you: Big Business can and should be doing so much more to stand up for voting rights, but their time to do so is running out.
Businesses also must acknowledge their outsized role in financing candidates and political parties. If they want to help solve the crisis we are facing, they must stop contributing to or supporting candidates and the only major political party that actively opposes voting rights and undermines democracy. If a Fortune 500 company stands up for voting rights in public and simultaneously donates to Republican legislators who support voting restrictions or the Big Lie, it is not a champion of democracy. It is complicit in the very real and dangerous effort to weaken the very democratic principles upon which our democracy relies.
In her speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination, Kamala Harris said, “years from now, this moment will have passed. And our children and our grandchildren will look in our eyes and ask us: Where were you when the stakes were so high? They will ask us, what was it like? And we will tell them. We will tell them, not just how we felt. We will tell them what we did.”
It is time for the business community to stop telling us how they feel — they need to show us what they are willing to do.