April 26, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Conservatives howled after Major League Baseball announced it would move its draft and July’s All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to the state’s newly enacted voter restrictions. The legislature took action after a record turnout among historically marginalized voters flipped the reliably conservative state for Democrats in the presidential election and U.S. Senate runoffs. When Delta also publicly opposed the law, Georgia lawmakers moved to repeal a jet fuel tax break benefiting the airline.
Although public opposition came too late to stop Gov. Brian Kemp from signing the legislation into law, still more companies are issuing statements denouncing anti-voter bills making their way through legislatures in other states. Condemnation alone, however, will not be enough to put an end to this activity. Corporations looking to make an impact must also affirmatively support long-term democratic reforms that ensure every eligible voter can participate fully in the electoral process.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says there is no place for business leaders in this debate, but the fact is, democracy is good for business. Research shows making it easier to vote actually helps grow the economy. By contrast, adding obstacles can exacerbate income inequality. One bill currently under consideration in Texas is estimated to cost the state billions of dollars in losses. That is money not invested in communities, small businesses or job creation. It’s in the interest of corporations to support expanding voting rights: A strong democracy means better commerce.
To be clear, we cannot overlook the fact that, throughout our nation’s history, efforts to erect discriminatory barriers to voting have thrived in the silence, complicity and support of powerful business leaders. But the current moment offers an opportunity to address this wrong, and businesses’ newfound engagement on this issue is welcome and critical. At a time when lawmakers have successfully insulated themselves from political consequences of their actions by manipulating the rules, businesses have the power to protect democracy in ways their individual employees and customers cannot.
The most effective way for companies to do this is to support a framework of principles and systemic change. Some have expressed general support for making it easier to vote, but that type of statement can be easily misappropriated. After all, Georgia Republicans have been quick to point to the measures in the new law that could potentially expand voting access, in an apparently effort to distract from its suppressive provisions and negative ramifications.
Instead, corporations should get behind specific policies that have been proven to increase voter participation and that enjoy broad bipartisan support. The For the People Act would enact many such provisions for federal elections, including: no-excuse mail voting, which is in use in 34 states and Washington, D.C.; allowing voters to register up to and including on Election Day, which was first implemented in states like Idaho and Wyoming; and rights restoration by law rather than executive clemency, which is in place in all but a few states. The top 10 states for turnout in the 2020 general election—including Colorado, where MLB moved its All-Star Game—use either no-excuse mail voting or registration at the polls or both, while those at the bottom of the rankings tend to have stricter voting rules.
Business leaders should also support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would set a new formula for determining which jurisdictions must get federal approval before changing their voting rules. Since the Supreme Court invalidated the former formula in Shelby County v. Holder, dozens of states have implemented practices that make it harder to vote, including aggressive voter purges that have erroneously removed active voters from the rolls and precinct closures that largely impact communities of color.
Achieving equality under the law is not as simple as voicing general support for democratic institutions. If it were, the United States would rank first in the world for political freedoms, instead of behind nations like Argentina, Chile and Mongolia. Rather, it involves risk and fortitude. If John Lewis could sacrifice his blood, Dr. Martin Luther King his life, and millions of last summer’s peaceful protesters could risk their health in the pursuit of equal justice, then surely our business leaders can join the call for common sense proposals that benefit all Americans and, ultimately, themselves.
Cecilia Aguilera is counsel at the Fair Elections Center, a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization.
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