American firms forced to take sides in voting rights battle

Kenneth Chenault

( – Battle lines are being drawn across the country between those who support the voter suppression tactics exemplified by the Georgia legislature and voting and Civil Rights activists fighting against these draconian measures.

Last week, 72 Black executives signed an open letter challenging their corporate counterparts across the country to join the fight against a Republican-led campaign to pass a slate of laws that would restrict voting access in as many as 47 states.

Kenneth Chenault, managing director and chairman of General Catalyst, a venture capital company and former CEO of American Express, said in a CNBC interview that what he and his Black colleagues had heard from corporations was what he characterized as “general statements about their support for voting rights and against voter suppression.”

“But now we’re asking, put those words into action,” said Chenault, one of the organizers of the executive letter.

“Corporations have to stand up. There is no middle ground,” he and his colleagues said in the letter. “This is about all Americans having the right to vote. But we need to recognize the special history of the denial of a right to vote for Black Americans. And we will not be silent.”

In interviews on CNN and CNBC, Chenault went further: “Fundamentally, if you can’t oppose this legislation, that’s the lifeblood for Black Americans, the right to vote. We can’t be silent, and corporate America can’t be silent. And if they can’t speak out on this issue, what can they speak out on?” he said.

Corporations have been awakened. Last Friday, April 2, executives from about 200 companies stepped up to support the effort to protect voting, not just in Georgia but in the other states trying to suppress and manipulate the vote.

The companies released a statement that said in part: “Our elections are not improved when lawmakers impose barriers that result in longer lines at the polls or that reduce access to secure ballot drop boxes. There are hundreds of bills threatening to make voting more difficult in dozens of states nationwide,” said the statement by ViacomCBS, Target, Saleforce, Dow, HP and Estee Lauder among others. “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.”

Gov. Brian Kemp signed the law before the ink was dry on the bill sent over by the Republican members of the general assembly.

The pressure on corporations has ratcheted up since Kemp signed into law a raft of measures that has significantly increased restrictions on Georgia voters. The laws restrict absentee and early voting and restricts the ability of African Americans and other people of color to vote.

Among the law’s provisions are the imposition of new limitations on ballot drop boxes that limits their widespread deployment and allows for them to be placed in voting sites and requires voters to submit their driver’s license or state ID number as part of their vote-by-mail application. If they have neither, they must submit a photocopy or electronic image of an acceptable form of identification such as a passport), and criminalizing the act of providing food and/or water to voters waiting in line to vote.

But the most alarming part of the law, activists and advocates say, is the provision that gives state officials the authority to override county election board officials and allow Republicans to potentially disqualify voters in Democratic-dominated areas.

Kemp and his GOP counterparts have been defiant as criticism and actions against them increases. In addition to the prospective boycotts of Home Depot, Delta and Coca Cola, comes the announcement that Major League Baseball brass is moving the All-Star game to another venue this summer. According to one tourism official, the state stands to lose as much as $100 million because of what Kemp and other Republicans call “cancel culture.”

“I want to be clear, I will not be backing down from this fight,” he said at a press conference to strike back at his critics. “We will not be intimidated, and we will not be silenced. Major League Baseball, Coca Cola and Delta may be scared of Stacey Abrams, Joe Biden and the Left but I’m not.”

Voting rights experts have described Georgia as the epicenter of voter suppression and Kemp’s signing of the bill making the Peach State the first in the country to enact these restrictions. So far, according to the Brennan Centre for Justice, 47 states have introduced 361 voter suppression bills.

As the bills from the Georgia assembly made their way through the House and the Senate early this year, voting rights activists like LaTosha Brown and Nicole Henderson, of Black Voters Matter and the New Georgia Project respectively, began formulating and advancing strategies to fight back against the voter suppression measures.

Henderson said organizers in Georgia are definitely working together, testifying on the unjust nature of the legislation and participating in rallies to show the public the potential damage the law would be to the community at large and the African American community specifically.

“One thing we’re doing is leaning on corporations which made grandiose statements after George Floyd and now are quiet,” she said.

Brown and Henderson note that almost two dozen major corporations are headquartered in Georgia. They include Home Depot, UPS, Delta Airlines, AT&T, The Southern Company, and the Coca Cola Company. Other major U.S. companies who have also funded co-sponsors of the Georgia bills to the tune of $7.4 million include Comcast, CVS, Walmart, General Motors and Publix.

Research by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization has shown that “since 2015, AT&T, Comcast, UnitedHealth Group, Walmart, and other big businesses have donated a combined $50 million to state Republican lawmakers who are currently supporting voter suppression bills across the United States—generous political spending at odds with recent corporate efforts to rebrand as defenders of voting rights.”

Brown said corporations try to have a public face that is progressive, inclusive and identify with movements for justice, especially racial justice, but often stop short of supporting true racial justice.

“Corporations have a responsibility. We work there, serve on boards and are actual consumers who consume $106 billion, a part of Georgia’s economy,” she said in a television interview before the Georgia vote. “I think they have a civic responsibility. This is a prime opportunity for them to stand up, use their leverage power and push and stop deals that will push back voter access to Jim Crow times.”

Brown said many corporations like Coca Cola ran campaigns last year saying they support the Black community and Black Lives Matter around racial equity. Now, she said, this is a prime opportunity for these companies to use their power.

“We think they need to respond stronger. There have been a few comments, a couple of statements. We need to see action,” she said. “They have the political leverage, the ability to put pressure on the legislature. Coke, AFLAC, UPS and Southern have a tremendous amount of political access and power but we’re not see the (requisite) type of action and pressure. Ultimately, democracy is good for business.”

But in the wake of passage of SB202, when asked, Brown said she supports an economic boycott of these corporations and maybe the state of Georgia.

“If they’re not willing to support us,” she said, “why should we support them?”

Leave a Reply