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Corporate Leaders Discuss How to Address Georgia's Voting Laws

New York Times - Mon Apr 12 17:21

Ken Frazier, the Merck chief executive, has called on corporate executives to publicly state their support for broader ballot access.
Credit...Mike Cohen for The New York Times

As corporate America continues to push back against a wave of restrictive voting laws under discussion across the United States, Big Law is joining the fight.

A coalition of 60 major law firms has come together “to challenge voter suppression legislation and to support national legislation to protect voting rights and increase voter participation,” said Brad Karp, the chairman of the law firm Paul Weiss and the organizer of the group, which has not been formally announced.

Mr. Karp said the coalition would “emphatically denounce legislative efforts to make voting harder, not easier, for all eligible voters, by imposing unnecessary obstacles and barriers on the right to vote.”

Many of Wall Street’s most powerful firms are also part of the effort, including Simpson Thacher; Skadden Arps; Akin Gump; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Ropes & Gray Sullivan & Cromwell; Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Wachtel Lipton.

“We plan to challenge any election law that would impose unnecessary barriers on the right to vote and that would disenfranchise underrepresented groups in our country,” Mr. Karp said.

The firms will work with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit organization, to identify laws that it might challenge in court. Mr. Karp said that could include challenging the voting law that Republicans passed in Georgia last month, and which set off a national debate over voting rights.

“It puts legislators on notice that if there are laws that are unconstitutional or illegal they will face pushback from the legal community,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center. “This is beyond the pale. You’re hearing that from the business community and you’re hearing it from the legal community.”

On Saturday afternoon, more than 100 corporate leaders attended a Zoom meeting to discuss what they should do, if anything, to shape the debate around voting rights.

On the call, which was organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor who regularly gathers executives to discuss politics, several senior business leaders spoke forcefully about the need for companies to use their clout to oppose new state legislation that would make it harder to vote.

The call began with Ken Chenault, the former American Express chief, and Ken Frazier, the Merck chief executive, urging the executives to publicly state their support for broader ballot access, according to several people who attended the meeting. Last month, the two gathered 70 fellow Black leaders to sign a letter calling on companies to fight bills that restrict voting rights, like the one that recently passed in Georgia.

Mr. Chenault and Mr. Frazier have prepared a new statement that broadly supports voting rights, and they are asking big companies to sign it this week.

Later on the call, several other chief executives shared their views on the wave of restrictive new voting laws being advanced by Republicans, according to the people who attended the meeting.

Chip Bergh, the chief executive of Levi’s, called the movement a threat to democracy, while Mia Mends, a Black executive at Sodexo who is based in Houston, spoke about restrictive voting legislation that was making its way through the Texas Legislature.

Toward the end of the meeting, Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn co-founder, discussed the importance of having corporate leaders affirm that the last election was secure, and James Murdoch, the former chief executive of 21st Century Fox, talked about the importance of a healthy democracy. Mr. Karp of Paul Weiss also attended the meeting.

The voting-rights debate is fraught for companies, putting them at the center of an increasingly heated partisan battle.

“C.E.O.s are grappling right now with what to do and how to respond,” said Daniella Ballou-Aares, chief executive of Leadership Now, who helped organize the call. “There is a lot of confusion.”

But beyond making statements, business leaders are at a loss over what they can do to influence the policy decisions made by Republican lawmakers who have embraced overhauling voting rights as a priority.

Companies like Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola lobbied behind the scenes before the Georgia law was passed last month, and the companies say their efforts had a hand in removing some of the most restrictive provisions, such as eliminating Sunday voting.

But after Delta and Coca-Cola came out in opposition to the final law, and other corporations began sounding the alarm about the voting legislation being advanced in nearly every state, Republican leaders lashed out.

“My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said last week. “It’s not what you’re designed for. And don’t be intimidated by the left into taking up causes that put you right in the middle of America’s greatest political debates.”

Yet the business community appears to be emboldened, with more companies and business groups preparing to get involved.

“All these C.E.O.s came together days after McConnell admonished corporations to stay out of politics,” said Tom Rogers, founder of CNBC, who attended the meeting. “In convening, they were saying as a group that they were not going to be intimidated into not voicing their views on their issues.”

So far, however, there is little indication that the growing outcry from big business is changing Republicans’ priorities, with legislation in Texas and other states still moving ahead.

“Texas is the next one up,” said one chief executive who attended the meeting but asked to remain anonymous. “Whether the business commitments will have a meaningful impact there, we’ll see.”