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CEOs discuss pulling donations, additional public statements to fight voting bills

More than 100 attendees met on Zoom to chart further corporate action, one of the call's organizers said.
Image: Protesters Rally Against Georgia Voting Bill HB531
Demonstrators against House Bill 531 outside Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on March 8.Megan Varner / Getty Images

More than 120 CEOs, business leaders, lawyers and experts came together Saturday afternoon to discuss further action against voting legislation nationwide, attendees on the call said.

The group discussed numerous options to push back against the Republican-led efforts to restrict access to the ballot box, including pulling their donations, refusing to move business or jobs to states that pass restrictive measures, and relocating events, said one of the call's organizers, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.

"It was incredibly concrete," said Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management.

The meeting was first reported Sunday by The Wall Street Journal.

Public statements, support for federal election legislation and involvement in voting rights-related legal action are all under consideration, said Mike Ward, co-founder of the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group that encourages civic participation by businesses.

"This priority on democracy is being driven by consumers and by employees," Ward said.

A wide variety of industries were represented: financial, pharmaceutical, travel, technology, retail and transportation. Notable attendees were Brad Karp of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments; Chip Bergh of Levi Strauss; and Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons.

Representatives of AMC Theaters and three major airlines also attended.

Major corporations are getting involved as Republicans work to advance hundreds of restrictions across the country, changes that voting rights advocates and civil rights groups argue would disproportionately affect voters of color. Several major corporations spoke out this month against a restrictive new law in Georgia and legislation pending in Texas, while Major League Baseball announced that it would move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the state's law.

Republicans immediately pushed back.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it is "stupid" for corporations to take stances on divisive political issues, before warning corporate America to "stay out of politics." (He softened his stance a day later, saying: "I didn't say that very artfully yesterday. They're certainly entitled to be involved in politics. They are. My principal complaint is they didn't read the darn bill," referring to Georgia's recently enacted law.)

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, said that the corporate response was "nonsense" and that American Airlines' CEO should "go away" after the airline denounced a GOP-sponsored bill under consideration in Texas, where it is headquartered. Republican legislators in Texas advanced another restrictive voting bill out of the state House on Thursday.

Sonnenfeld said he and other organizers invited more than 120 CEOs and hoped a dozen would join. Ninety turned out with just 48 hours' notice — with a few calling in from Augusta, Georgia, where the Masters golf tournament was underway — for the call at 2 p.m. ET Saturday. Organizers left the Zoom room open after they wrapped up at 3:10 p.m., because attendees were still active in the chat.

"The overriding spirit is they don't want politicians using wedge issues to try and solidify their hold on office, because that leads to angry communities and finger-pointing workforces and divided shareholders. It makes their job as CEOs harder to manage these constituents. They want social harmony," Sonnenfeld said.

Ward said the Black Economic Alliance is coordinating a public statement that is likely to be released this week.

Ward said he is helping organizers follow up with companies about their responses and expects a number of companies to come out in favor of federal voting legislation.

House Democrats recently passed a sweeping voting rights bill, the For the People Act, which would create a federal floor of election access and regulations. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised it would get a vote in the full Senate, but its chances of passage are slim because of the 60-vote threshold in chamber, which is split 50-50.

Democrats are also expected to reintroduce the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would update and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, this year.

Sonnenfeld said the strong attendance on the call as a "statement of defiance" against Republican pushback to corporate criticism.

"We had the top brass of American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta. If they're going to boycott airlines, they better have their own jet," he said.