New voting laws under consideration by state legislatures across the United States are pitting the traditionally business-friendly Republican Party against some major American corporations that have criticized the proposed legislation.
Republicans, who say the measures are necessary to improve the integrity of elections, have faulted CEOs for getting involved, but the business leaders don't seem to be listening.
In recent days, more than 100 CEOs and other senior figures from U.S. companies, including iconic brands like Starbucks, Target, Levi Strauss, and airline firms Delta, American and United, gathered virtually to discuss publicly supporting measures making it easier, not more difficult, for Americans to vote.
The movement signals a break between the Republican Party and a business world that has largely supported conservatives.
The schism has infuriated Republican lawmakers, leading Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the party's highest-ranking elected official, to say, "My advice to the corporate CEOs of America is to stay out of politics." He added, "Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order."
McConnell backed off somewhat a day later, saying he had not spoken very "artfully" and that corporations are "certainly entitled to be involved in politics" but should have read the Georgia bill more carefully.
Years in the making
The decision by corporate leaders to take a stand on the question of voting rights is the latest and most visible example of a trend that has been accelerating for several years, said Gerald F. Davis, a professor of management at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
"Historically, companies had done everything possible to avoid being politically active," he said. "The last thing you wanted was to do anything controversial, because you didn't want to alienate either side."
However, that attitude has been replaced by a recognition of two major factors guiding American businesses' behavior. One is social media, and the concern that being out of step with public opinion could lead to concerted online attacks. An even larger factor is the preferences of those businesses' own employees.
"Millennials are way more liberal than prior generations," Davis said. "And they seem to be way more activist, way more willing to get activated by political issues. MBA students 30 years ago just stayed scrupulously neutral. And that is not the case anymore. They have pretty strong values that they bring to the workplace."
Leading the charge
The movement to speak out against restrictive voting laws was spearheaded by Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck. The two men, both African Americans, brought together 72 Black business leaders to sign a statement published as a full-page "Memo to Corporate America" in The New York Times last week.
"The stakes for our democracy are too high to remain on the sidelines," the letter said. "Corporate America must support our nation's fundamental democratic principles and marshal its collective influence to ensure fairness and equity for all. … Corporate America should publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit Americans' ability to vote. When it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to vote, there can be no middle ground."
The statement being considered by the broader group of companies last weekend is said to build on that original open letter.
Origins of the new laws
The movement of top business leaders follows a major political battle that erupted after Georgia enacted a raft of new policies that the Republican-dominated state legislature and Republican Governor Brian Kemp said were meant to ensure election security.
The push to change voting rules began after the 2020 elections, in which Georgia voters chose Joe Biden over Republican incumbent Donald Trump, prompting Trump to repeatedly claim that he had been cheated — something even the state's most senior elections officials, themselves Republicans, said was a falsehood.
There is debate about how restrictive the rules are, but experts say some elements of the law will make it more difficult to vote in the state's urban areas, which are racially diverse and skew Democratic, and will make voting easier in the rural and predominantly white areas that favor Republicans.
The law also gives the GOP-controlled legislature extraordinary power over the apparatus of Georgia's election system, making it possible for lawmakers to replace local officials with election administrators of their own choosing.
Corporations take stand
After the measures were signed into law, Major League Baseball announced that it would relocate this summer's All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest, and a number of Georgia-based companies, including Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, issued strong statements denouncing the law.
From the law's opponents, the companies received a mix of praise for speaking out and criticism for waiting until it had been signed to do so. The new move by corporate executives to take a position on restrictive voting laws seems to be an effort to avoid further criticism as many other states consider taking up laws similar to those Georgia passed.
The response from Republican lawmakers at the local and national levels has been swift and angry, on the one hand castigating businesses for taking a stand on what they see as a "political" issue while simultaneously claiming that their proposals are being misrepresented.
In some cases, supporters of the laws are correct about misinformation being spread about the measures — from no less a source than President Joe Biden. For example, Biden has incorrectly claimed that the Georgia law requires polls to close at 5 p.m., which is not true.
Whether Biden was misinformed or purposefully misrepresented the facts is not clear, but the Republican National Committee did not give him the benefit of the doubt.
"Joe Biden's lies have real consequences, and Georgia's Black-owned small businesses are paying the price for his reckless misinformation campaign," RNC Chairman Ronna McDaniel wrote in an open letter about the decision by Major League Baseball to move the All-Star Game. "The RNC is using every tool to counter Democrats' woke mob mentality and debunk their false narrative around commonsense election integrity protections in Georgia and across the country."
Genie out of the bottle
After this fight, said Davis of the University of Michigan, it will probably become ever more difficult for corporations to maintain the apolitical stances they have tried to project in the past. But that does not mean that they will all align in the same way.
"It's really hard for me to see a way for them to step back," he said. "If the level of polarization that we saw in the previous few years continues or exacerbates, you can imagine a world where we separate not just into red states and blue states, but red companies and blue companies."