The Face of Hypocrisy: Corporate America or State Legislatures? Or Both?
April 27, 2021
The January special election in Georgia sent the first Black and first Jewish senators from Georgia to Washington DC. This was due to the largest ever voter turnout for a special election in Georgia and much of that turnout was voters of color. Rather than responding to this with a sense of civic pride, the Republican dominated Georgia state legislature responded to the huge voter turnout by passing some of the nation’s most repressive voting laws. These laws will restrict voting access, rather than make it easier to vote and seem to have drawn a target on populations of color. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the Georgia law targets Black voters with “uncanny accuracy.” When this law was signed by Governor Brian Kemp in a closed room, surrounded only by white men in front of a picture of a plantation where 100 Black persons had been enslaved, the irony was lost on no one and the message was clear.
Outrage over this law was swift even before it was passed. One of the targets was the large (and even the not so large) corporations that call Georgia home. The question to them was, “Will you stand by and let this happen to the people who consume your products?” “Will you continue to contribute to the campaigns of these state legislators who are voting to repress the rights of Black and Brow and Indigenous people in Georgia?” “What will you, oh mighty corporate giants, do?”
The corporate response was, at first, very weak. A common statement, rebuking the legislators and supporting voting rights. Not good enough was the response from the legions of voting rights and civil rights advocates across the nation as they watched other Republican-dominated state legislatures take lesson plans from Georgia under the mantle of “voter integrity laws.”
The response grew stronger with a statement coming from 72 current and former Black executives condemning the law. They said: “After having time to now fully understand all that is in the bill, coupled with discussions with leaders and employees in the Black community, it’s evident that the bill includes provisions that will make it harder for many underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives. That is wrong.”
But statements do not hold legislators’ feet to the fire. Money does. And the cutting off of campaign contributions to those who support state voter suppression laws goes a much longer way toward changing the hearts and minds of those who pass these laws. While some of the corporate statements indicated that the withdrawal of funds was a part of their commitment to voting rights, there were loopholes to be found. Withdrawal of direct contributions to legislators did not prevent contributions to PACs and party campaign committees which could then funnel funds back to the very legislators that were supposedly “blacklisted”. No matter what was done, no matter what statements were made by corporate leaders, the ties to Republicans and their values are strong and run deep. As Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice, joined by Al Vivian and John-Miles Lewis penned in calling on corporate leaders to uphold pledges made in 2020 when George Floyd was murdered:
“Corporations did not go far enough to ensure every voting citizen had fair and equitable access to the most basic of American rights – the right to participate in the electoral process; the right to have a voice in our shared future. The failure of corporate leaders across our state to live up to their racial equity commitments made in the last year disregards and disrespects our fathers’ tireless work and jeopardizes the soul of Georgia and the promise of democracy. . . . when the first test came challenging our corporations to move from words to action, to stand on behalf of disenfranchised voters, there was shocking silence. . . . The lack of action is not only ethically wrong and morally reprehensible, it hurts the corporate bottom line. Racism is bad for business.”
As Georgia legislators are joined by those of other states, (including, to no one’s surprise, Texas) vying to take the lead in voter suppression, one might wonder if corporate leaders will pay attention or stand back and see how they can best protect their interests. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not standing back. It has taken an aggressive stance against the national legislation that is best positioned to nullify much of the voter suppression laws being passed by states. The Chamber has stated its strong opposition to the For the People Act (S1) which is widely supported by voting rights advocates and opposed by the GOP. But corporate leaders are caught in middle.
On April 14th, hundreds of CEO from major corporations as well as smaller ones signed on to a joint statement that said voting is “the lifeblood of our democracy” and “we must ensure the right to vote for all of us” — a pushback to those Republicans who have been telling corporations that these laws are essential for election security and corporations should keep their distance, stay out of these politics and not weigh in on what the federal and state legislatures are doing, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The question raised by both of these actions is will this re-shape the long term alliance between big business and the Republican party? And will the corporate dollars that flowed into the coffers of both federal and state Republican campaigns become a trickle, or even cease? There has been some impact as corporate giving to Republican PACs is down this year.
The question is: Will this last? The answer will, most likely be NO. Big corporations will find ways to “work around” direct giving to legislators who support voting restrictions. This will not necessarily stop their giving to the Republican Party or the PACs as they move toward the midterms. The Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, representing the Fortune 500 businesses have opposed S1, any tampering with the filibuster and even hints of raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. It is unlikely that statements of support for voting rights will change these positions.
So now we watch as state legislatures use Georgia as their model and try to outdo her. Texas is bringing forward repressive, racist voting laws that focus only on urban areas, and Arizona will certainly follow suit. Other states will follow suit. As of March 24th, state legislators had introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states. All will be contested in court and it is likely that some may prevail, given the right- leaning federal judiciary that has resulted from Trump’s appointments. But some might not prevail, and few, if any will be adjudicated at the Supreme Court which has been loath to take on voting rights.
The real answer to this hypocrisy is the passage of S1 and to do that may mean abolishing the filibuster. We know that this would take an enormous amount of courage on the part of Democratic Senators. The future of democracy may depend on it. Perhaps it is time for each of us to call our Senators.