Corporate Leaders Discuss How to Address Georgia’s Voting Laws
As Republicans in Texas and other states continue to push restrictive electoral laws, corporate chiefs across the country have stepped up efforts in recent days to oppose such laws and defend the right to vote.
Two prominent black executives are urging big corporations to sign a new declaration against “discriminatory laws,” and PayPal and Twilio announced on Monday that they had agreed to add their names. Google, Netflix, BlackRock, and Ford Motor will also sign, according to people familiar with the situation. Other companies were in talks to do so, said two people familiar with the considerations.
A group of large law firms formed a coalition “to challenge voter suppression legislation”.
And an Apple-funded film starring Will Smith pulled its production out of Georgia on Monday in protest of the state’s new electoral law, a warning shot for other lawmakers.
“Corporations are always reluctant to engage in partisan warfare,” said Richard A. Gephardt, a Democrat and former House majority leader, who speaks to corporate leaders about their responses. “But this is about whether we will protect democracy. If you lose democracy, you lose capitalism. “
Texas is fast becoming the next major battleground in the battle for access to voting. Two collective bills that would introduce a number of voting restrictions are working their way through the legislation there.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican, has signaled firm support for both bills, an indication that Governor Greg Abbott, also a Republican, will be quick to sign them if they make it to his desk.
Large Texas-based companies, including American Airlines and Dell Technologies, have already spoken out against the bills. And AT&T, which is headquartered in Dallas, has stated that it doesn’t endorse bills that restrict access to voting, despite not specifically mentioning Texas.
The statements angered Republicans in Texas, and Mr. Patrick made a tough reprimand aimed specifically at American Airlines.
“Well, let me tell you something, Mr. American Airlines, I’ll take it personally,” he said at a press conference last week. “You are questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of the 18 Republicans who voted for it,” he added, referring to the 18-13 vote that passed one of the Senate bills.
The Texas bills were the focus of a discussion on Saturday afternoon when more than 100 corporate executives met on Zoom to discuss what, if anything, they should do to shape the debate over voting rights.
Several participants in the call, organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at Yale who regularly brings executives together to discuss politics, strongly advocated the need for companies to use their clout to defy new state laws that would make voting difficult.
Mia Mends, the Chief Administrative Officer of Sodexo, who is Black and is based in Houston, urged the other executives to concentrate their forces in Texas and said she was doing the same.
“One of the things I do this week is call a lot of our executives on the phone and say, ‘We need you to take a stand. We need your company to take a stand, ”said Ms. Mends in a later interview. “And that means not just saying that we support voting rights, but also speaking specifically about what we need and what we would like to change in the bill.”
The Zoom meeting began with testimony from Ken Chenault, a former head of American Express, and Ken Frazier, executive director of Merck, who said they were asking companies to sign a statement against restrictive electoral laws, according to several people who attended the Attended meetings.
Last month, Mr. Chenault and Mr. Frazier organized 70 other black leaders to sign a letter calling on companies to crack down on laws that restrict voting rights, such as the one passed by Georgia.
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Later in the Zoom session, Chip Bergh, executive director of Levi Strauss & Company, identified the bills as a threat to democracy, and towards the end, Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, discussed the importance of confirming corporate executives confirm that the 2020 election was for sure. One of the last speakers was James Murdoch, former CEO of 21st Century Fox, who spoke about the importance of healthy democracy.
Also on the call was Brad Karp, the chairman of the Paul Weiss law firm. On Monday, Mr Karp said he had organized the coalition of law firms, which includes Skadden. Cravath, Swaine & Moore; and Wachtell Lipton.
“Legislators are warned that laws that are unconstitutional or illegal are being pushed back by the legal community,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York think tank that works with the coalition. “This is beyond the pale. You hear this from the business community and you hear it from the legal community. “
The electoral law debate puts companies at the center of an increasingly heated partisan struggle.
“CEOs are currently struggling with what to do and how to respond,” said Daniella Ballou-Aares, executive director of the Leadership Now project, a consortium that promotes democratic principles and helped organize the Zoom call . “There is a lot of confusion.”
In addition to making statements, business leaders are weighing what action they can take to influence the political decisions of Republican lawmakers, who have made voting a priority.
A drastic step is to get business out of a state. Major League Baseball was moving its all-star game from Atlanta to Denver in 2021 due to Georgia law, and Mr. Smith and director Antoine Fuqua said Monday they no longer planned on making their movie “Emancipation” in the state.
“Emancipation” was the first major production to cite the law as the reason for leaving the state, which has become a hub for film and television production. In the film, due to begin production this summer, Mr. Smith will play an enslaved man who has emancipated himself from a plantation in the south and joined the Union army.
“We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that passes regressive electoral laws designed to restrict electoral access,” said Smith and Fuqua in a joint statement. “The new electoral laws in Georgia are reminiscent of electoral barriers that were passed at the end of the reconstruction to prevent many Americans from voting.”
A few years ago, when Republicans came up with bathroom bills that discriminated against transgender people, large corporations threatened to take their business out of states like Indiana, North Carolina, and Texas. These laws did not prevail.
Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, both based in Atlanta, campaigned behind the scenes for changes to Georgian legislation before it was passed last month, saying their efforts helped bring some of the most restrictive regulations like the elimination to eliminate the Sunday vote.
Companies did not publicly oppose it before the law was passed. But when Delta and Coca-Cola later criticized it and alerted other companies that almost every state was proposing electoral laws, Republican leaders struck.
“My warning to American corporations, if you will, is to stay out of politics,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, last week. “It’s not what you’re designed for. And don’t let the left intimidate you into dealing with issues that put you in the middle of America’s biggest political debates. “
However, the business community does not seem to be stepping back as more companies and groups of companies prepare to get involved.
“All of these CEOs came together days after McConnell warned companies to stay out of politics,” said CNBC founder Tom Rogers, who attended the Zoom meeting. “When they were called up, they said as a group that they would not be intimidated not to voice their views on their issues.”
Texas, like Georgia, is a major corporate state, with businesses and their employees drawn in part to tax incentives and the promise of affordable real estate. Several Silicon Valley companies have moved or expanded their presence in Texas in the past few years.
Apple plans to open a $ 1 billion campus in Austin next year and manufactures some of its high-end computers at a facility in the area.
In December, Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced that it would move its headquarters from California to the Houston area, while software company Oracle would move its headquarters to Austin. And last month Elon Musk posted a plea for engineers on Twitter to move to Texas and take jobs at SpaceX, its aerospace company.
Mr. Musk’s other companies, Tesla and the Boring Company, have also expanded their presence in the state in recent months.
None of these companies has yet spoken out against the Texan legislation. And for now, at least, there’s little evidence that the growing outcry of big business is changing Republican priorities.
“Texas is next,” said one executive who attended the Zoom meeting but asked to remain anonymous. “We’ll see whether the business obligations there will have a significant impact.”
The coverage was contributed by Nick Corasaniti, Kate Conger, Lauren Hirsch and Nicole Sperling.