April 20, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
The crises in America are piling up. The worst pandemic in a century spawned an economic crisis, which could cause a financial crisis and, if we don’t act soon, a political crisis when coronavirus clashes with the November general elections. Expanding vote-by-mail and early voting would mean that voters won’t face an unacceptable choice between their health and participating in the election. Companies can play an essential role in protecting their employees’, customers’ and communities’ rights to vote in the face of the pandemic. And business leaders know that the political risk of a delayed election in any country in the world — including the U.S. — can have a profound impact on their businesses.
Improving national civic health isn’t new to the business community. More than 50 major companies have already signed on to the Civic Alliance, stating their commitment to increasing civic participation among their employees and companies. When one of us was chair of the JPMorgan Foundation, supporting our customers, employees and communities through civic participation was always our focus.
America’s business community can lead the way in averting an electoral crisis in November. Our influence in Washington and state capitals can ensure vote-by-mail and early voting are available and implemented effectively in every state by November.
Today, more than 8 out of every 10 lobbyists in Washington represent the business community. Right now, those business lobbyists are busy making sure Congress and the administration ensure that America’s companies can survive the temporary shock from coronavirus and are there to rebuild when the crisis is over. But at the same time, businesses should instruct their lobbyists to work aggressively for election continuity measures.
Advocating for election continuity wouldn’t just be good for America — it would also be good for businesses. During the Great Recession, while large companies found support from the federal government to make it through the crisis, they damaged their relationship with the American public, who felt that Wall Street had been bailed out at the expense of Main Street — an idiom that still persists in politics today. The last thing businesses should want now is to be seen to advocate for their narrow self-interests at the expense of the collective national interest.
Business support isn’t just good for businesses — it’s also good for politics. We’ve come a long way from when President Calvin Coolidge said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Now, politicians in both political parties are becoming more and more comfortable portraying American companies as the parasites or foreign entities taking advantage of the American people. By supporting democracy and the rights of people to vote, business can combat these canards, and show an act of civic-mindedness and friendship to democracy and, more importantly, to voters.
But beyond mere advocacy, business can also donate materially to the effort to safeguard the November elections right now. Just as companies like Ford, General Motors, Anheuser Busch InBev and others have repurposed their manufacturing processes to make critical medical supplies like ventilators, masks and hand sanitizer, American companies with domestic production can find ways to manufacture optical scan machines and print ballots. In a selfless and public-spirited move, Medtronic shared its ventilator patent, allowing other companies to help address the critical shortage. (This was, no doubt, a PR coup for the medical device company.) As the nation prepares for a shortage of voting machines, manufacturers registered with the Election Assistance Commission could consider following Medtronic’s lead.
Business leaders know that a crisis is also an opportunity, and that dynamic situations are catalysts for growth. While the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered in history as one of the great natural disasters, it’s also an opportunity for the business community in America to lead, to demonstrate patriotism and humanitarianism, to repair the relationship of trust and mutual benefit with the American people, and to begin the recovery process today. No wonder our organization found that 62 percent of business executives favor expanding vote-by-mail.
Now is the time for companies to save the country from another crisis. If for no other reason, it’s just good business.
Jeff Walker, retired vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase, ex-chairman of JPMorgan Foundation and founder of JPMorgan Partners, is on the board of Leadership Now. Daniella Ballou-Aares is CEO and co-founder of the Leadership Now Project.
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