The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than 100 corporate executives hold call to discuss halting donations and investments to fight controversial voting bills

The North Cobb Regional Library in Kennesaw, Ga., before the Senate runoff elections in January. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

More than 100 chief executives and corporate leaders gathered online Saturday to discuss taking new action to combat the controversial state voting bills being considered across the country, including the one recently signed into law in Georgia.

Executives from major airlines, retailers and manufacturers — plus at least one NFL owner — talked about potential ways to show they opposed the legislation, including by halting donations to politicians who support the bills and even delaying investments in states that pass the restrictive measures, according to four people who were on the call, including one of the organizers, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale management professor.

While no final steps were agreed upon, the meeting represents an aggressive dialing up of corporate America’s stand against controversial voting measures nationwide, a sign that their opposition to the laws didn’t end with the fight against the Georgia legislation passed in March.

It also came just days after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that firms should “stay out of politics” — echoing a view shared by many conservative politicians and setting up the potential for additional conflict between Republican leaders and the heads of some of America’s largest firms. This month, former president Donald Trump called for conservatives to boycott Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball, Delta Air Lines, Citigroup, ViacomCBS, UPS and other companies after they opposed the law in Georgia that critics say will make it more difficult for poorer voters and voters of color to cast ballots. Baseball officials decided to move the All-Star Game this summer from Georgia to Colorado because of the voting bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on April 6 criticized companies for taking a stance against the new strict voting law passed in Georgia. (Video: Reuters)

The online call between corporate executives on Saturday “shows they are not intimidated by the flak. They are not going to be cowed,” Sonnenfeld said. “They felt very strongly that these voting restrictions are based on a flawed premise and are dangerous.”

Leaders from dozens of companies such as Delta, American, United, Starbucks, Target, LinkedIn, Levi Strauss and Boston Consulting Group, along with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, were included on the Zoom call, according to people who listened in.

The discussion — scheduled to last one hour but going 10 minutes longer — was led at times by Kenneth Chenault, the former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, who told the executives that it was important to keep fighting what they viewed as discriminatory laws on voting. Chenault and Frazier coordinated a letter signed last month by 72 Black business executives that made a similar point — a letter that first drew attention to the voting bills in executive suites across the country.

The call’s goal was to unify companies that had been issuing their own statements and signing on to drafted statements from different organizations after the action in Georgia, Sonnenfeld said. The leaders called in from around the country — some chimed in from Augusta, Ga., where they were attending the Masters golf tournament.

“There was a defiance of the threats that businesses should stay out of politics,” Sonnenfeld said. “They were obviously rejecting that even with their presence (on the call). But they were there out of concern about voting restrictions not being in the public interest.”

One Georgia-based executive talked about how the final version of Georgia’s legislation — which Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has said actually expands voting access, a claim that many have challenged — was much worse than expected, and how that should serve as a warning to other chief executives as more states consider adopting their own voting bills, according to people on the call.

Access to the polls has emerged as a major national issue. Republican state lawmakers are trying to pass legislation they say is designed to combat voting fraud — which Trump has baselessly and frequently claimed is a problem. GOP-backed bills in various statehouses aim to ban ballot drop boxes, limit voting periods, restrict absentee voting or stiffen requirements for voter identification. Five bills with new voter restrictions have been passed nationwide so far, with 55 restrictive bills in 24 states being considered by legislatures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.

Companies have jumped into hot-button political debates before, such as the corporate backlash to a 2016 North Carolina bill banning transgender people from using the public restroom that corresponds with their gender identities. After the Capitol riot in January, many companies pledged to stop donating to politicians who spurred doubts about the outcome of the presidential election.

Now, it is voting rights. Many of the corporate leaders who joined the call seemed to view the voting restrictions as attacks on democracy, rather than as a partisan issue, according to people who listened in.

Mike Ward, cofounder of the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group of businesses focused on voter engagement, said he felt there was a broad consensus at the end of the call that company leaders plan to continue working against voting bills they think are restrictive — “to lean into this, not lean away from this.”