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Companies defend voting rights as GOP lashes out against 'woke corporations'

FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2020, file photo, people wait in line for early voting at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Ga. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2020, file photo, people wait in line for early voting at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Ga. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP, File)
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Hundreds of companies backed a joint public statement Wednesday, asserting objections to restrictive voting laws under consideration in legislatures across the country, as corporate America struggles to navigate the competing partisan impulses of consumers and politicians on both sides of divisive issues.

The statement, which appeared in a two-page ad in The New York Times and The Washington Post, expressed opposition to “any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.” However, it did not address any specific bills or outline any action that might be taken in response to states passing them.

The publication of the statement reflects a growing willingness on the part of corporations to wade into heated local and national political debates over voting rights, election integrity, and voter suppression. Companies that signed the letter included Amazon, Google, Netflix, Apple, Wells Fargo, and American Express, as well as prominent executives like Warren Buffett and several celebrities.

More than 360 bills with restrictive voting provisions have been introduced in 47 states since the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Many of them target mail-in voting, early voting, ballot dropboxes, and other voting methods that were heavily used by Democrats last fall.

Republican sponsors insist the reforms are necessary to restore confidence in election integrity and prevent fraud. Democrats counter that there is no evidence of widespread fraud, and many voters only doubt election integrity because Republicans like former President Donald Trump continue to falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen.

Critics of a sweeping election law passed in Georgia last month and similar bills under consideration in Texas, Arizona, Michigan, and other states argue they would disadvantage Black voters. They have urged corporations with financial interests in those states to take a stand for voting access, even if it means crossing Republicans those companies have supported in the past.

According to The New York Times, the statement was organized by Kenneth Chenault, a former top executive at American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, chief executive of Merck. Frazier said the advertisement was not intended to be partisan, although the bills under scrutiny are almost uniformly being advanced by Republicans.

Coca-Cola and Delta, Atlanta-based companies that drew backlash from the left and right for aggressively denouncing the Georgia law only after it passed, did not sign the statement published Wednesday. Other large companies that have generally voiced support for voting rights like Home Depot and JPMorgan Chase were also conspicuously absent from the list.

Chenault and Frazier spearheaded a public letter signed by dozens of Black executives last month calling on corporations to speak out and use their money and influence to defeat restrictive voting bills. That initiative came too late to impact the Georgia bill, but organizers hoped it would fuel opposition to similar legislation elsewhere.

Since then, Major League Baseball announced it would move its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Colorado to protest the Georgia law. Actor Will Smith and director Antoine Fuqua decided earlier this week to move the production of their upcoming film, “Emancipation,” out of Georgia, as well.

In Michigan, the chief executives of 30 major companies, including Ford and General Motors, staked out opposition Tuesday to any changes to election laws that would make voting harder for historically disenfranchised communities. In Texas, American Airlines and Dell have led corporate resistance to pending election legislation.

Ahead of the release of the statement Wednesday, more than 100 executives and corporate leaders joined a virtual conference call Saturday to discuss ways to signal opposition to proposed state voting bills. They discussed cutting off donations to politicians who support the bills or holding back investments in states that pass them, but no decisions were made.

Experts say hundreds of corporations banding together to take a public stand on a controversial issue suggests a significant shift in strategy for top executives. However, it appears to be a response to pressure from customers, shareholders, and employees.

“We’ve seen companies make fits and starts toward being more publicly socially responsible, but doing it in a mass statement, that’s becoming more the norm, where they’re kind of teaming up as opposed to standing on their own and doing it,” said Michael Barnett, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School.

Kelly Martin, a professor of marketing at Colorado State University and co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, noted a “safety in numbers” element to bringing together a coalition of companies to issue a collective statement. Also, executives might want to be seen as supporting voting rights in principle and opposing the lies about the 2020 election that seem to have inspired many of these bills.

“I suspect many of these companies are looking at this issue and want to publicly be noted as being on the ‘right side of history,’ so to speak,” Martin said.

According to Mitchell Hamilton, an expert on brand activism at Loyola Marymount University, political advocacy has become a branding tactic for some companies as social media and the internet increase the visibility of their positions. Political support that used to be private is now much more public, for better or worse.

“As consumers gained more access to information about companies and their business practices via the internet, social media became an effective platform for public-facing brand messaging,” Hamilton said.

None of this is to suggest corporate America is eagerly lining up behind the Democratic agenda on voting or other issues. Business leaders are divided on President Joe Biden’s proposal to raise corporate taxes to pay for infrastructure investments, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is lobbying aggressively against the For the People Act, Democrats’ comprehensive election reform legislation.

The Chamber said Tuesday it would send a “key vote alert” to senators explaining its concerns with the bill, including provisions that restrict the political activities of corporations, provide federal matching of small-dollar contributions, and impose new disclaimer requirements on communications mentioning a candidate or official. The organization maintained any changes to voting laws must be bipartisan to foster public faith in elections.

“The Chamber is deeply troubled by efforts at the state and federal level to enact election law changes on a partisan basis,” a draft of the letter to lawmakers obtained by The Wall Street Journal stated.

Corporate pressure and threats to move business out of states have succeeded in convincing legislators to change course in the past, but Republicans have been defiant in the face of corporate criticism over voting reforms. They have attempted to frame it as an extension of liberal “cancel culture” intended to unfairly vilify conservatives.

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Texas Lt. Gov Dan Patrick said in a statement last week. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session.”

Republicans in Georgia weighed eliminating tax breaks for Delta after it spoke out against their voting bill, and GOP lawmakers elsewhere have warned of legislative reprisals against businesses that oppose their agenda. Former President Trump publicly called for a boycott of “woke companies” that opposed the Georgia law.

"It is finally time for Republicans and Conservatives to fight back — we have more people than they do — by far!" Trump said in a statement earlier this month.

Three Republican U.S. senators introduced a bill Tuesday to repeal Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, which they explicitly stated was a response to the league pulling the All-Star Game out of Georgia. At a news conference, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, decried the “rise of the ‘woke’ corporation.”

“If they're going to play partisan enforcer, they shouldn't expect to see special goodies from Washington when they are dishonestly acting to favor one party against the other,” Cruz said.

A co-sponsor of that bill, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also proposed broader legislation this week to strengthen antitrust enforcement and crack down on large corporations. He cited Google, Facebook, and Amazon as companies that would be affected by the reforms.

“Woke corporations want to run this country and Washington is happy to let them,” Hawley said. “It’s time to bust up them up and restore competition."

According to CNBC, pushing back against corporate activism was a topic of discussion at the Republican National Committee’s spring donor retreat at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend. The American Conservative Union later announced a new initiative to target companies that “disrespect the diverse views of their customers and employees” by supporting Democratic positions.

As more and more corporations speak out on voting rights, punishing them or boycotting them could become unwieldy for Republicans. However, part of the challenge for corporations is that Democrats and progressive activists are equally incensed if they do not choose a side on major political and social issues. Often, silence is viewed as complicity.

“It’s much harder for mass-market companies like Coca-Cola or Delta to take a stand because they run higher risks of backlash from part of their consumer segment,” said Amna Kirmani, an expert on consumer psychology at the University of Maryland. “Why would they do it? They do it because there’s a big risk of backlash if they don’t.”

In recent years, many companies have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice causes. Those companies remaining mute on voting restrictions that critics say would disproportionately impact Black voters and marginalized communities had spurred demands for boycotts from the left.

“Once a company goes out and says they have some political viewpoints, they have entered this arena where they are continuously expected to do so,” Martin said.

It is unclear how long the current wave of corporate activism might last or how far executives are truly willing to go to advocate their positions. Some companies that publicly halted donations to members of Congress who opposed certifying the 2020 election after the Capitol riot in January have already resumed sending them money.

“It’s a tricky thing,” Barnett said. “Companies mostly, I think, would prefer to avoid entanglement in any of these things, but their critical stakeholders demand it.”

A 2017 study in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice found little benefit for brands in tying themselves to political or social positions. On contentious issues, there was a considerable risk that consumers who disagreed with their stance would turn against them.

A recent poll conducted by Scott Rasmussen found more than half of Americans do not even know the political positions of companies they patronize. Nearly 60% say companies that take political positions contribute to divisiveness in the country.

Experts say reactions can vary widely depending on the company and the nature of its consumer base, and public attitudes toward brand activism appear to be shifting. Whether it is worth speaking out can be a difficult calculus for some companies.

“There are many consumers, particularly millennials and younger consumers, who care deeply,” Kirmani said. “They have been saying for several years they want corporations to represent values, presumably values with which they agree.”

According to Hamilton, consumers have become more conscious of their consumption practices and of the politics of major corporations. In the process, their purchasing decisions have become an avenue to express their political ideologies.

“Consumers have always used products and brands to send identity-based signals,” he said.

A high-profile statement by hundreds of companies broadly opposed to voting restrictions is certain to anger some Republicans, but it might not please Democrats either. Given the generic language of the ad, it is uncertain what, if any, concrete consequences it will have for specific pieces of legislation.

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“Democrats aren’t necessarily thrilled with corporate response to voter restrictions, as many say companies haven’t gone far enough to condemn such proposals,” Martin said. “So, these companies haven’t necessarily picked sides, and the tone of the letter definitely avoids creating any such impression.”

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