“There are hundreds of bills threatening to make voting more difficult in dozens of states nationwide,” executives wrote in the statement, which also included signatures from the CEOs of Under Armour, Salesforce and ViacomCBS.
“We call on elected leaders in every state capitol and in Congress to work across the aisle and ensure that every eligible American has the freedom to easily cast their ballot and participate fully in our democracy,” the statement said.
The joint statement was organized by Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group of businesses focused on voter engagement.
Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the summer’s protests against policing, companies made commitments to fight systemic racism, including within their own ranks.
Those pledges raised the bar for expectations among consumers and activists for corporate accountability, building pressure to speak up about public policy and its effect on communities.
After Georgia signed into law its Election Integrity Act, which critics say disproportionately affects voting access for people of color, corporations this week came under pressure to speak out before similar bills introduced in nearly every state are passed.
Most of the corporate criticism of the Georgia law came after it was passed, despite weeks of call-outs and demonstrations from activists leading up to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature on March 25.
With Friday’s petition, businesses are getting pressure from activists to step up before bills become law, and to go beyond issuing statements.
In addition to condemning voting proposals in dozens of states, activists want companies to testify in front of legislators, withdraw financial support from lawmakers who support them, and throw weight behind federal election reform legislation.
“We want them to lobby senators about passing the currently pending bill and use their forces to lobby that just as aggressively as they would to advance their own corporate interests,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of national community organizing group Black Voters Matter. “At the end of the day, democracy is in their business interest.”
They are also looking beyond Georgia.
Texas is the next battleground for activists, where the largest number of restrictive bills (49 as of March 24) have been introduced in the state legislature. One of them — Senate Bill 7, which would ban overnight early voting and drive-through early voting — passed in the Senate and moved to the state House on Thursday morning. The House is considering its own voting bill, House Bill 6, which would prohibit election officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters without their requests.
Dell chief executive Michael Dell said in a tweet Thursday that “governments should ensure citizens have their voices heard,” and the Texas House Bill 6 “does the opposite.” The Texas-based company declined to comment further.
And Texas-based American Airlines said in a statement, “We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it. As a Texas-based business, we must stand up for the rights of our team members and customers who call Texas home, and honor the sacrifices made by generations of Americans to protect and expand the right to vote.”
Albright was in the airport in Houston on Wednesday after participating in protests at AT&T’s Dallas headquarters over the state’s proposed legislation when he stopped to watch a CNBC segment featuring Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier and former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, who coordinated a letter signed by 72 Black business executives calling on companies to fight voting bills propelled by Republican lawmakers in at least 43 states after Georgia’s law was passed.
“This wasn’t just a fluff segment,” Albright said. “They had a substantive conversation about the letter, about the law, about what the expectations are for the corporate community. It was passionate. It wasn’t a hostage video. It wasn’t a statement you made because you had to.”
Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 361 bills in at least 47 states that would restrict access to mail, early in-person and Election Day voting, according to data compiled as of March 24 by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.
A coalition of voting rights and Black civil rights organizers, including the Georgia NAACP, Black Voters Matter, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project Action Fund, have joined to fight the bills, which the Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, calls “Jim Crow 2.0,” and have called for corporate support.
Meanwhile, Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, tweeted his support Wednesday of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a federal bill that would oversee jurisdictional voting changes.
More corporations and executives have spoken out since leading Georgia companies such as Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola took a stronger stance on the bill Wednesday.
Business Roundtable, a coalition of top corporate CEOs chaired by Walmart President Doug McMillon, said Wednesday: “Unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote strike at the heart of representative government,” and called for bipartisan efforts to ensure voter protection in state legislatures.
On Thursday, Jay Carney, Amazon senior vice president, tweeted a statement saying the company opposes "efforts in other states aimed at restricting the ability of Americans to vote,” and said it hopes states follow Virginia’s efforts to enhance voter protections. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Civic Alliance first started considering a sign-on letter for its members late last week, but the Black executives’ letter is what “really tipped the scales,” said Mike Ward, the group’s co-founder. The statement “literally had a call in it — we call on our fellow executives and business leaders to join,” Ward said. Within eight hours on Thursday, about 10 percent of the organization’s roughly 1,070 member companies had decided to sign on, and Ward expects that number to continue rising.
Ward said the organization has been getting dozens of calls and emails a day since the Georgia law was signed, and that it has worked with some companies to help them craft their statements. “It feels very much like November, instead of April of the year after” an election season, which is usually their busy time, Ward said.
Ward said he believes states where legislation has not yet passed will get increasing attention from corporations, and that companies are considering options beyond statements — things such as withholding contributions, lobbying on behalf of federal legislation, or speaking directly with lawmakers.
The bills have been propelled and applauded by the GOP, and some top elected officials have criticized the wave of corporate pushback. In a fiery attack on Delta Air Lines after CEO Ed Bastian condemned Georgia’s bill, Kemp said in a Fox News interview Thursday that companies will “have to answer to their shareholders.”
In a Thursday night statement, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded to American Airlines, saying: “Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy.”
Patrick added:. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session. Senate Bill 7 includes comprehensive reforms that will ensure voting in Texas is consistent statewide and secure.”
Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), who wrote the bill, also criticized American’s statement in a tweet Thursday night, and suggested the company hadn’t even read the bill.
Ward said that while critics have suggested companies were slow to respond, the public has not historically expected companies to focus on voting access. But Albright hopes more of Corporate America will follow Chenault’s admonition that “there can be no middle ground” and expects concrete action beyond issuing statements or signing a letter.
“Just as aggressively as you tell the world to have a Coke and a smile, you need to tell the world to repeal this law,” Albright said. “If you really want to show us that this is an unacceptable law, then you can still take some actions.”