US chief executives are banding together to co-ordinate their responses to contentious new voting legislation, after individual companies have come under fire for either enabling voter suppression or indulging in hypocritical “woke capitalism”.
Defying pressure from Republicans to stay out of politics, scores of CEOs joined a weekend video call to discuss bills that have been introduced in 47 states, which the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice says would restrict voting access.
Several executives suggested withholding donations from lawmakers supporting such legislation, or reconsidering investment in states which pass restrictive laws, participants in the Saturday afternoon call said.
While the discussion stuck to broad principles rather than detailed pledges of action, plans were forming on Sunday for CEOs to sign a new statement of support for wider election access early this week, signalling a growing urgency to corporate America’s advocacy on voting rights.
Two leading black executives — Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, and Ken Chenault, former head of American Express — led much of Saturday’s discussion and organised a public call last month from 72 senior black executives for their peers not to “remain on the sidelines”
Dan Schulman, chief executive of PayPal, was among the executives on Saturday’s call who said he would lend his name to a new statement being organised by the Black Economic Alliance.
“I feel it is a non-partisan, fundamental democratic issue that everyone who is eligible to vote can do so in a non-discriminatory way,” he said.
Activists last month accused Atlanta-based companies, including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and UPS, of doing too little publicly to oppose Republican legislation in Georgia that put restrictions on early voting and voting by mail, which critics said will disproportionately deter black voters.
The CEOs of Coca-Cola and Delta were among those to condemn the Georgia legislation after it passed.
Soon afterwards, however, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell led a backlash from top Republicans, accusing CEOs of “economic blackmail” and advising them to “stay out of politics”.
“From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government,” McConnell said.
Mike Ward, vice-president of Civic Alliance, a bipartisan business group pushing for greater voter turnout, said he had not seen anybody on the video call “wavering” in response to the Republican pushback.
“What I found most interesting was the really broad, if not universal, support not just for democracy but for businesses standing up for democracy,” he said.
“The spectrum of political views and industries were unified in the voices for greater voter equity and access,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the Yale leadership professor who helped convene the call, said in a statement.
Other participants said the call had emphasised the need for companies to co-ordinate their responses and agree on a non-partisan set of principles rather than be seen to be singling out any individual state or lobbying for proposed federal legislation.
“Without a thriving democracy we cannot have a thriving and secure capitalism,” said Lynn Forester de Rothschild, founder of the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism, who described protecting voting rights as business leaders’ patriotic duty.
Polling has suggested public support for broader access to the ballot. On Saturday’s call, pollsters from Morning Consult presented findings that most Democrats and a plurality of Republicans agree that companies should support legislation which focuses on increasing access to voting.
Bennett Freeman, an adviser to companies on human rights who was on the call, said voting rights represented “the perfect convergence” of two issues on which companies spoke out last year: racial equity after George Floyd’s death and the peaceful transfer of power at the time of the election.