Amazon, BlackRock, Google, Warren Buffett and hundreds of other companies and executives signed on to a new statement, expected to be released Wednesday, opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would make it harder for people to vote.
It was the biggest show of solidarity by the business community as companies around the country try to navigate the partisan uproar over Republican efforts to enact new election rules in almost every state. Senior Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, have called for companies to stay out of politics.
The statement was organized in recent days by Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck. A copy will appear Wednesday in advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Last month, with only a few big companies voicing opposition to a restrictive new voting law in Georgia, Chenault and Frazier led a group of Black executives in calling on companies to get more involved in opposing similar legislation around the country.
Since then, many other companies have voiced support for voting rights. But the new statement, which was also signed by General Motors, Netflix and Starbucks, represented the broadest coalition yet to weigh in on the issue.
“It should be clear that there is overwhelming support in corporate America for the principle of voting rights,” Chenault said.
The statement does not address specific election legislation in states, among them Texas, Arizona and Michigan, and Chenault said there was no expectation for companies to oppose individual bills.
“We are not being prescriptive,” he said. “There is no one answer.”
Frazier emphasized that the statement was intended to be nonpartisan, arguing that protecting voting rights should garner support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
“These are not political issues,” he said. “These are the issues that we were taught in civics.”
Yet in this hyperpartisan moment, the issue has become an all-out political battle, with big business caught in the middle. In just the past month, since companies started speaking out against the law in Georgia and legislation in other states, top Republicans have accused the corporate world of siding with the Democratic Party.
Lawmakers in Georgia threatened to rescind a tax break that saves Delta Air Lines, which is based in Atlanta, millions of dollars a year. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida posted a video in which he called Delta and Coca-Cola, another Atlanta company, “woke corporate hypocrites” for criticizing the Georgia law. Trump joined the calls for a boycott of companies speaking out against the voting laws. And last week, McConnell said companies should “stay out of politics.”
The politically charged nature of the debate may help explain why there were some notable omissions to the signatories of the new statement.
Coca-Cola and Delta, which condemned the Georgia law after it was passed, declined to add their names, according to people familiar with the matter. Home Depot also declined, even though its co-founder Arthur Blank said in a call with other business executives Saturday that he supported voting rights. Another Home Depot co-founder, Ken Langone, is a vocal supporter of Trump.
Coca-Cola and Delta declined to comment. Home Depot said in a statement Tuesday that “the most appropriate approach for us to take is to continue to underscore our belief that all elections should be accessible, fair and secure.”
People involved in the process said some of the Atlanta companies that did not sign were wary because of the blowback they had received after their earlier statements on voting rights but also did not feel the need to speak again.
As the debate over voting legislation intensifies, many companies do not want to feel pressured to take stands on specific legislation, state by state.
JPMorgan Chase also declined to sign the statement despite a personal request from senior Black business leaders to the chief executive, Jamie Dimon, according to people briefed on the matter. Dimon has publicly declared that he supports Black Lives Matter and made a statement on voting rights before many other companies, saying, “We believe voting must be accessible and equitable.”
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the bank said, “We publicly made our own strong statement last month about the critical importance of every citizen being able to exercise their fundament right to vote.”
That statement for release Wednesday came together over the past week and a half, after the Black executives who spoke out received an outpouring of support.
About 10 days ago, Chenault and Frazier conferred with three other Black executives – William M. Lewis Jr., the chairman of investment banking at Lazard; Clarence Otis Jr., a former chief executive of Darden Restaurants; and Charles Phillips, a former chief executive of Infor – about what next steps they could take. Within days, they had a draft of the statement and were sharing it with other executives.
Last Wednesday, Frazier and Chenault spoke with members of the Business Roundtable, an influential lobbying group that includes the chief executives of many of the company’s biggest companies. Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., also spoke to the group.
Then on Thursday, someone from McConnell’s staff, at the group’s invitation, briefed its members on the details of the Georgia law, several people familiar with the situation said.
The next day, members of the Business Roundtable had a regularly scheduled meeting at which the executives discussed the voting issue. On that call, Dan Schulman, the chief executive of PayPal, encouraged other executives to sign the statement.
On Saturday, Chenault and Frazier spoke on a Zoom meeting with more than 100 executives that was organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor who regularly gathers business leaders to discuss politics. At that meeting, Chenault read the statement and invited executives on the call to add their names to the list of signatories.
Many companies were quick to do so. But in some cases, chief executives were willing to sign the statement personally while keeping their company’s name off the list. One of them was Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway. He has long contended that businesses should not be involved in politics but also said at the company’s annual meeting in 2018 that he did not put his political views “in a blind trust at all when I took the job.”
Some companies, including some that signed the statement, asked for the removal of a sentence that committed them “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.” Chenault and Frazier said the line was crucial, and it remained.
“Throughout our history, corporations have spoken up on different issues,” Chenault said. “It’s absolutely the responsibility of companies to speak up, particularly on something as fundamental as the right to vote.”
The debate over voting legislation has become an all-consuming issue for the business community as Republicans in almost every state advance election legislation.
As Michigan’s Senate prepares to hold hearings on a package of voting bills, the chief executives of 30 of the state’s largest companies, including Ford Motor, GM and Quicken Loans, released a joint statement Tuesday declaring their opposition to changes in the state’s election laws that would make voting more difficult.
In a separate statement on Twitter, GM said, “We are calling on Michigan lawmakers and state legislatures across the nation to ensure that any changes to voting laws result in protecting and enhancing the most precious element of democracy.”
It concluded, “Anything less falls short of our inclusion and social justice goals.”
In Texas, where two omnibus bills that would introduce voting restrictions are working their way through the Legislature, more big companies reiterated their opposition to restrictive new voting laws.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which is based in Houston, said in a statement: “We categorically oppose any legislation that unfairly seeks to restrict the right of our team members or any American to vote in fair, accessible and secure elections.”
And in Arizona, activists and labour groups have begun calling on companies with large presences in the state, including CVS, Allstate, Farmers Insurance and Enterprise Holdings, to publicly oppose legislation that could limit voting access.
Georgia was the first state to pass a restrictive new voting law, and the fallout continued this week. On Monday, a film starring Will Smith and financed by Apple pulled its production out of the state because of the law. That followed Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver.
Walmart’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, who is chairman of the Business Roundtable and declined to sign the letter, told Walmart employees in a detailed note this week that many of the voting bills across the country were “both a mix of positive reforms that enjoy bipartisan support, along with other changes seemingly designed to create advantage for one party.”
“Walmart takes seriously the right of every citizen to participate in free and fair elections,” McMillon said, but warned that he was not going to use the company’s voice on this issue. “We do not plan to opine on the many things that may be said and done. But we do want to be clear that we believe broad participation and trust in the election process are vital to its integrity.”
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