Washington Whispers: The Corporate War over Voter Suppression
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Anti-democratic forces are on the move. An alarming new study issued in April by the Brennan Center for Justice reports that Republican legislators in 47 states have introduced 361 bills intended to restrict voting rights, Five of these bills (in Georgia, Iowa, Utah and two in Arkansas) have already been signed into law. More than 50 of them are moving through legislatures in 24 states, and 29 have passed at least one legislative chamber.
Georgia’s law, passed on March 25, is a prime example of this national effort at subversion of the electoral process. The Georgia law requires a photo ID for voting absentee by mail; a shortened period to request an absentee ballot; and limits the number of drop boxes as well as their locations and the hours they can be used. The law inhumanely makes it illegal to give food or water to citizens waiting in line to vote. And it provides that Georgia’s Republican-controlled State Election Board can remove and replace county election officials, and even limit the power of Georgia’s Secretary of State, its chief elections officer.
The GOP is trying to justify its voter suppression venture in Georgia and elsewhere based on Donald Trump’s big lie that there was wholesale election fraud in the 2020 election. They claim these anti-democratic laws are needed to ensure election security and give the public confidence in election fairness.
But President Biden had it right when he recently called these legislative moves “Jim Crow on steroids.” They are a throwback to state and local laws like poll taxes, literacy tests and others that prevented Black people from voting until they were overturned by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court’s evisceration in 2013 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, on the specious grounds that it was no longer necessary, is permitting Georgia and other states to reinstall the old Jim Crow system in this new form.
There was no election fraud in 2020 apart from Republican efforts to prevent people from voting, which Georgia’s new law and those proposed across the country are intended to amplify a thousandfold. Georgia’s ID requirements limit eligibility of otherwise qualified voters. The number of absentee drop boxes for Georgia’s four most populous counties will be decreased from 94 to 23. That and the law’s other extreme measures hampering the ability to vote early or by mail will make the lines to vote on election day even longer than they have been in the past, especially in predominantly Black communities.
But the voters targeted and their allies are not taking the evisceration of voting rights lying down. Civil rights and voting rights groups have filed multiple federal lawsuits challenging the Georgia statute, and stand ready to oppose such legislation in other states. In addition, the Democratically controlled House of Representatives has passed HR1, the For the People Act, which would override these retrograde Jim Crow-style laws. That bill must still, of course, overcome Republican obstruction to get through a 50-50 Senate.
On another front, groups including Black Voters Matter, the New Georgia Project Action Fund and the Georgia NAACP have called on corporations to speak out against the voting restrictions and to stop donating money to the Republican legislators sponsoring the bills. Some activists have threatened to boycott corporations that continue to back Republican lawmakers rather than stand up for the right to vote.
The Corporate Response:
Following lobbying by civil rights groups and consultation with the Major League Baseball Players Association, Major League Baseball (MLB) has taken a principled stand on the side of voting rights and democracy. MLB has moved its 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. It is heartening to see the professionals engaged in America’s signature pastime standing up for such an integral American value.
Other corporations initially were much slower to speak out, let alone take action. It was only after the Georgia legislation was passed that Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said that the new election law was “unacceptable” and “based on a lie.” In an email to his employees, he wrote “the entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections. This is simply not true. Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights.”
Also after the law’s passage, James Quincey, the CEO of Coca-Cola, another of Georgia’s most influential companies, said the law "does not promote principles we have stood for in Georgia around broad access to voting, around voter convenience, about ensuring election integrity.” He also stated: "Our focus is now on supporting federal legislation that protects voting access and addresses voter suppression across the country…We all have a duty to protect everyone's right to vote, and we will continue to stand up for what is right in Georgia and across the U.S."
If Quincey’s reference to federal legislation means that Coca-Cola will support the For the People Act recently passed by the House, that support would be meaningful, since the bill is expected to face substantial difficulty in a Senate equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.
But where were Coca-Cola and Delta before the Georgia legislation was passed?
Coca Cola was, at best, silent and, according to the Brennan Center, had “made political contributions to the politicians who wrote, passed and signed [the] bill into law.”
According to Delta CEO Bastian, the airline “joined other major Atlanta corporations to work closely with elected officials from both parties, to try and remove some of the most egregious measures from the bill. We had some success in eliminating the most suppressive tactics that some had proposed.” He also stated, “I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.”
It is difficult to take Bastian’s protestation as genuine, given that Delta participated in creating the law. To say Delta tried to remove the most egregious measures from the bill is really to say not only that Delta had influence over the creation of the legislation, but that it went along with the egregious measures that are still in the law rather than expose and publicly challenge them.
The real movement toward corporate action was initially organized by Black corporate leaders. The former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and current Merck & Co. CEO Kenneth Frazier got 72 Black executives to publish an open letter denouncing the Georgia law and others like it in a full-page March 31 New York Times ad. The letter read in part, "As Black business leaders, we cannot sit silently in the face of this gathering threat to our nation's democratic values and allow the fundamental right of Americans, to cast their vote for whomever they choose, to be trampled upon yet again."
Based on Chenault’s and Frazier’s outreach to other corporate executives and CEOs, the momentum of corporations challenging such legislation nationally has picked up speed. On April 10, 100 corporate leaders met on zoom to discuss what their role should be in the debate on voting rights. The meeting began with a call from Chenault and Frazier to sign a statement opposing restrictive voting laws.
On April 14, the names of corporations, law firms, nonprofits, foundations and individual citizens filled up two-page ads in both the Washington Post and the New York Times, as signatories proclaiming that they stand for democracy and the ability of each citizen to cast ballots for the candidates of their choice. The ads stated that the right to vote must be ensured for all of us. They maintained that “We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote 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.” Finally, the ads called for all “to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic and fundamental right of all Americans.”
This statement is a start. But talk is cheap—even at the rates the Washington Post and the Times charge for two-page ads. While the statements are designed to announce to civil rights groups, voting rights groups, and the public at large that corporate America is on the side of democracy, this alone will not have much effect on the GOP’s electorally subversive actions.
The GOP Backlash:
The after-the-fact declarations of solidarity with those trying to defend voting rights came too late for Georgia and said nothing specific about what the corporate world is prepared to do concerning those rights in the nation overall. But even those toothless statements were too much for the GOP, which has decried the corporations as cowards caving in to leftist pressure and threatened retribution. In Georgia, Republicans tried to rescind Delta Air Lines’ tax break, and eight members of the Georgia House Republican Caucus requested the symbolic removal of all Coca-Cola products from an office suite.
At the national level, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chastised the corporations, warning: "My advice to the corporate CEOs of America is to stay out of politics. Don't pick sides in these big fights." McConnell further maintained they could become "a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”
Of course, McConnell didn’t mean the part about staying out of politics. He later clarified this, saying, "I'm not talking about political contributions. I'm talking about taking a position on a highly incendiary issue like this and punishing a community or a state because you don't like a particular law they passed.” McConnell supports corporate political speech so long as it is expressed as massive donations to Republicans like himself. He just doesn’t want corporations speaking out against laws he favors.
When mocked for his hypocrisy, McConnell backed down, saying, "I didn't say that very artfully yesterday. They're certainly entitled to be involved in politics," and claimed his complaint was simply that the CEOs should read the bill.
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio called Delta and Coca Cola “woke corporate hypocrites,” suggesting that because they do business in China yet fail to condemn China’s treatment of its citizens, they have no right to take a position on the treatment of voting rights in the U.S.—their own country.
The conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial board went even further, predicting that such companies “may pay the price when the woke mob decides to turn on them and they need GOP protection.”
McConnell, Rubio, and The Wall Street Journal all make generous use of the word “mob” and scornful use of the word “woke.” But “woke” is a colloquialism for becoming alert to injustice in society, especially racism. Waking up to recognize and fight racism—especially as relates to voting rights—should be lauded, not scorned. And one wonders how any of them dare refer to a “woke mob” after a real mob’s attack on the Capitol.
Merck CEO Frazier has maintained that “Free and fair access to the ballot was never a partisan issue. It’s a fundamental constitutional right,” and that it is not a political issue. While I agree that voting is a fundamental constitutional right and should not be a political issue, it very clearly is one. Corporations may want to pretend that they are not involved in politics. But every contribution they make to a party or candidate is a political act. Corporations need not only to take a side but to take a stand. They need to do more than buy two-page ads in The New York Times and the Washington Post. Corporations need to put their money where their mouths are by helping to fund the fight against restrictive legislation that has not yet passed, joining the suits challenging such laws that do pass, halting donations to Republicans sponsoring voter suppression and contributing instead to their opponents.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.