Corporations Can Defend Voting Rights — If Pressured.

A blank email window with the subject line "OUT OF OFFICE: IT'S ELECTION DAY!" with a large white "I Voted" sticker in the body of the message

Public pressure is mounting for companies to stand up against voter suppression laws in Georgia, Texas and Arizona — and the idea that corporations hold a stake in the fight for voting rights is nothing new. Since MTV and Rock the Vote first partnered in 1990, brands have been publicly involved in American elections. Corporate engagement in 2020 was not a minor effort — thousands of companies, to varying degrees, invested money and resources into non-partisan voter turnout campaigns. Rideshare companies provided discounted rides to the polls and sent free food trucks to voters waiting in line. And a wide range of companies worked to register their employees, donated plexi-glass to polling sites and amplified GOTV messages on social media.

In addition to delievering pro-voting messages to consumers, many companies re-examined how they could better support and encourage their own employees to make their voices heard. Brands like Patagonia closed their doors on Election Day so employees could cast their ballots. Almost 2000 corporations joined the group Time to Vote to increase civic participation by pledging to give workers time off from their workdays to vote — a move that greatly affects whose voice gets heard in elections, increasing access for hourly wage workers who do not have flexible schedules.

But assuming that companies encourage such voter engagement out of the goodness of their hearts obscures fundamental societal and economic realities — and minimizes how grassroots organizing and public pressure could further push corporations to defend voting rights, both inside and outside their walls, amid rising suppression efforts.

Why do companies encourage employees and consumers to vote?

The short answer? Consumers want them to. A marketing study in 2018 found that two-thirds of consumers will direct their money toward brands they believe match their own beliefs — and two thirds of the public told Pew that they thought “everything possible should be done to make it easy for citizens to vote.” A non-partisan, voter-centric campaign by corporations puts them in good standing with the majority of consumers, who increasingly look for social messaging from brands they support.

Companies have primarily focused their efforts on registration drives — activity that has proved to be a net positive for a company’s bottom line. Generic, non-partisan encouragements such as voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote messaging make a company look socially engaged, but not ideologically aligned. However, this perception is based on the longstanding agreement across the political spectrum that the right to vote itself is not a partisan issue — an agreement Republicans are determined to destroy.

In 2020, the GOP publicly pledged to roll back voting rights across the country to boost their electoral chances — and in the wake of Trump’s Big Lie, Republican lawmakers have been focused on finishing the job. With over 350 bills restricting the right to vote proposed in 47 states, targeting everything from absentee ballots to wait times to early voting to ID laws, Republicans are hard at work politicizing the very act of voting in the name of trumped up, demonstrably false claims of voter fraud. These actions by the GOP are a partisan move to secure election victories — but the electorate isn’t having it. Voters, unsurprisingly, like being able to vote, and support sweeping legislation to improve access to the ballot box, no matter their party.

As Republicans continue to attack voting rights, they are politicizing the very act of voting — and this makes blanket statements from corporations in support of voting look partisan. When one party is committed to restricting the right to vote, corporations encouraging voter turnout appear to be taking a side, even without indicating for whom or what issues one should vote. Republicans are trying to convince corporations that supporting free, fair and accessible elections is falling victim to “cancel culture.” They are trying to convince corporations to latch onto their suppression bills on the basis of “election security and integrity,” and consumers are not buying it. No matter how the Republicans spin their anti-democracy agenda, consumers still strongly favor increased access to the ballot — and they’ll be looking to corporations to do the same.

How can corporations defend voting rights in 2021?

Corporations can be powerful allies in the fight for fair and accessible elections. But they must be pressured to join the fray — and they must feel they have skin in the game. So far, companies have seen that public opinion will reward them for their participation in generic get-out-the-vote efforts. In 2021, consumers must show companies that the same is true in the fight against suppressive voting legislation — like the hundreds of bills proposed by Republicans across 47 states that would make voting harder. Turnout on Election Day is important, but in the years between elections, Republican legislators are hard at work enacting laws that narrow the pool of eligible voters more and more. Corporate heavyweights must use their platforms to discourage any attack on the right to vote — not just during an election, but in the years before and after as well.

Corporate pressure can and will derail repressive state legislation. In the battle for transgender rights, companies like the NCAA stating their opposition to discriminatory bills has gotten Republicans in North Carolina and South Dakota to rescind or amend their legislation. The same can happen for voter suppression legislation, but companies must be pressured to stand up. In Georgia, activists are pushing mega-corporations based in Atlanta to condemn Republicans’ brazen power grab through illegal and unprecedented voting restrictions. A boycott of Coca-Cola in late March forced the company to amend their public statements regarding the bills under consideration. In Texas, the former county clerk of Harris County called on companies like AT&T and Pizza Hut, who have headquarters in the state, to take action against pending legislation that would target Democratic voters in Harris County and Houston. Individual consumers can make their voices heard, through boycotts and social media campaigns, to let these companies know they will lose business if they do not defend democracy when they can.

Corporate America has gotten on board with voter registration efforts, en-masse, because they saw a marketing and economic opportunity. The same can be true for the fight against voter suppression laws — and if corporations really believe in protecting the right to vote, now is the time for them to show it. Americans have many ways to make their voices heard — at the ballot box, and with their wallets. Following the lead of voting rights advocates on the ground in states such as Georgia and Texas can show companies that there is a right side to be on in the fight against voter suppression even after Election Day — and that it pays to be on it.