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Hundreds of CEOs are taking a stand against new Republican voting laws

April 14, 2021, 6:53 PM UTC

Hundreds of companies, such as Apple, Amazon, BlackRock, and Facebook, and executives, Warren Buffett among them, have signed on to a statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would make it more difficult for Americans to vote.

The statement, which ran as a two-page ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post on Wednesday, is the strongest message yet in a heightening fight between Republican legislators who seek to implement more restrictive voting laws and the corporations who oppose them.

The signed statement came together in just days, and was spearheaded by Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck

“Regardless of our political affiliations,” it reads, “we believe the very foundation of our electoral process rests upon the ability of each of us to cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.”

A number of Fortune 500 executives have previously spoken out in opposition to Republicans in Georgia, Texas, and other states advancing restrictive voting laws. From decisive action to written statements, chieftains at Delta, Coca-Cola, AT&T, American Express, Merck, Major League Baseball, Aflac, Dell, and more have released statements and in some cases, moved or threatened to move their business elsewhere in response to the new laws.

The proactive movement marks a decided shift among companies that had previously been reluctant to take a stance on divisive, politically tinged matters. When former President Donald Trump refused to accept that he had lost reelection, many of these CEOs took weeks to meet secretly and plan collective, softly worded statements expressing their dismay. What has happened since implies a sea change in the way businesses view their role in the Beltway and their relationship with the GOP—likely the result of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot which provoked strong and decisive actions from America’s most profitable organizations.  

Corporate America has played an outsize role in the political world since the landmark 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision that allowed companies (and labor unions) to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose political candidates and causes. But that power has largely been used to quietly donate money, and often the money was hedged across both major parties equally as a way to ensure business-friendly policy no matter who came to power. And Republicans, who have long advertised themselves as the pro-business, anti-regulation group, had enjoyed the open wallets, so long as they came with tight lips. 

But lips are now loose, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is not pleased. He has accused various companies of “economic blackmail” and in a statement this month warned that they could face “serious consequences” for reacting to the new voting laws. 

“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 in a statement. “Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”

He added that, while his “warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” he isn’t “talking about political contributions.”

Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul are calling for a large-scale boycott of Coca-Cola because the company made it clear that it disapproves of Georgia’s voting laws. “If they want to boycott us, why don’t we boycott them?” Paul said on Fox News Tuesday. “This is the only thing that will teach them a lesson. If Coca-Cola wants to only operate in Democrat states and have only Democrats drink them, God love ’em. We’ll see how well they do when half the country quits drinking Coca-Cola.”

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a lengthy statement condemning American Airlines for opposing stricter voting laws in the Lone Star State. “Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” he wrote. 

Shortly after Delta CEO Ed Bastian called the new Georgia voting laws “unacceptable,” the Georgia House voted to end a fuel tax break for the airline. State senators opted not to pick up the bill, and so the break remained in place. 

Coca-Cola and Delta did not add their names to the statement released Wednesday.

Other notable omissions include JPMorgan Chase, whose CEO Jamie Dimon received a personal plea from senior Black business leaders to join.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon released a letter to employees explaining his choice to stay out of the matter. “We are not in the business of partisan politics,” he wrote. “While our government relations teams have historically focused on core business issues like tax policy or government regulation, Walmart and other major employers are increasingly being asked to weigh in on broader societal issues such as civil rights.”

The tension is likely to heighten in the coming months. According to data collected by the nonpartisan Brennan Center, lawmakers in 47 states have introduced 361 bills to restrict voting access. Nearly 60 of those bills are currently moving through legislative bodies in 24 states, and five have been signed into law. 

The laws would kick less active voters off rolls, create stricter voter ID requirements, prohibit distribution of snacks and beverages to voters waiting in line, limit absentee ballot request periods, ban mobile voting precincts unless in an emergency declared by the governor, among other things. Republicans have justified the new regulations by citing voters’ distrust in the system and a needed increase in “election integrity.”

Democrats say that a lack of distrust was propagated by Republicans in the first place following the 2020 presidential election. Former President Trump’s claims of rigged and unsafe elections and allegations of widespread fraud have been soundly rejected by judges, state election officials, and the Trump administration’s own Department of Homeland Security. Trump and his associates have lost more than 60 legal battles related to contesting election results in courts around the country.

The new laws, say Democrats, were instead written with the intention of unfairly decreasing voter turnout. High voter turnout typically aids Democrats in elections, and in the 2020 presidential election, Republicans trailed Democrats in their return rate of mail-in ballots by nearly four points, according to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who has been tracking these numbers for his nonpartisan site, the U.S. Elections Project

A group of 100 CEOs met last week to discuss taking collective action in opposition to the bills, in a virtual summit organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor who had also convened CEOs to address President Trump’s refusal to concede the election in November. CEOs expressed some hesitancy in November, but the spirit of April’s meeting was entirely the opposite, said Sonnenfeld. 

“The gathering was an enthusiastic voluntary statement of defiance against threats of reprisals for exercising their patriotic voices,” Sonnenfeld told CBS News. These business leaders “recognize that they need to step up to the plate and are not fearful of these reprisals,” he added. “They’re showing a disdain for these political attacks. Not only are they fortifying each other, but they see that this spreading of disease of voter restrictions from Georgia to up to possibly 46 other states is based on a false premise, and it’s antidemocratic.” 

Also on the call was Brad Karp, chairman of law firm Paul, Weiss. Karp announced this week that he had organized a group of the nation’s largest law firms including Skadden; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; and Wachtell Lipton to prepare to challenge any new restrictive voting laws that pass. 

Over the past decade, CEOs and corporate executives have used their platform to speak out against policy decisions and political groups. In 2015, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, took a stand against Indiana’s “religious freedom” law, and in 2016, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan spoke out against a North Carolina law requiring transgender people to use the public bathroom corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificate. After the Parkland shooting in 2018, a number of CEOs spoke out against the NRA, and Delta CEO Ed Bastian ended his airline’s discount for NRA members.