Corporations are speaking out against anti-voting laws. Why should we listen?
Well, that didn’t take long. It’s been a little more than a week since the Georgia legislature passed its heinous anti-voting law, S.B. 202, and the national press has kicked off the most unfortunate stage of the contemporary civil rights coverage cycle — suggesting we take seriously the civic opinions of the corporate class.
Make no mistake, the fallout from this bill is deadly serious. Among other provisions, the law tightens request windows and ID requirements for absentee ballots, prevents election officials from mailing these ballots unsolicited, decimates the drop box system and gives partisan Republicans significantly more control over state and county election administration. Research suggests such policies disproportionately burden Black Americans and other voters of color while creating artificial advantages for Republican candidates. Meanwhile, the purported motivations for the law — combatting voter fraud and restoring faith in the electoral process — stem not from empirical analysis or genuine debate, but venal disinformation campaigns backed by the highest echelons of the Republican establishment.
The backlash to S.B. 202 has been swift, with Georgia Democrats and voting rights activists vowing to keep up the fight in the courts and in the streets. Yet the passage of the Georgia bill is but the opening salvo in Republicans’ renewed war against suffrage. A recent tally by the Brennan Center for Justice counts at least 250 pending anti-voting bills in 43 state houses, including the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona.
While it’s understandable that civic leaders in Georgia and elsewhere would deploy every weapon in their arsenal to resist this assault on democracy, the tactic now dominating press coverage — pressuring massive corporations to “speak out” against these bills — distracts from the main task by diverting precious energy and attention from grass-roots organizing.
That’s because this approach, while well-intentioned, is founded on the fiction that statements from these companies actually mean something. Consider Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, two major Georgia employers that voting rights activists singled out and shamed for failing to publicly condemn S.B. 202 prior to its passage. These companies quickly found the gospel, with Coke CEO James Quincey rebuking the law as “unacceptable” and “a step backwards.” For his part, Delta CEO Ed Bastian eventually called out S.B. 202 as “wrong” and “based on a lie,” although only after being criticized for an earlier series of ambiguous statements that actually supported parts of the bill.
The notion that these words proceed from some sort of enlightened corporate commitment to the public good is laughable. In fact, Coca-Cola spent years laying the groundwork for the anti-voting movement by funding the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative lobbying group that drafts and disseminates model legislation to state legislators across the country, including policies designed to make voting more difficult. While the company claims its contributions were aimed at opposing industry taxes, Coke functioned as a key ALEC sponsor and even occupied a seat on its highest board until 2012, when it abruptly severed ties with the group after being outed by progressive activists.
The other initial target, Delta, continues to aggressively fight unionization efforts among its rank-and-file and remains the only major carrier without organized flight attendants staffing its planes. In 2019, Delta was ridiculed when an anti-union flyer posted by management went viral. “A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun,” the flyer admonished, “Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.” Considering Delta leadership cares so little for the rights of their own workers, why should we put any stock into the company’s opinions on the rights of American voters?
The list doesn’t stop there. On April 2, Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell tweeted in support of “free, fair, equitable access to voting.” According to his anodyne statement, “governments should ensure citizens have their voices heard.” Mr. Dell avoids mentioning that Dell consumers must waive their rights to jury trials or class actions in the event of a dispute over one of Dell’s products. These types of agreements are the result of corporate America’s longstanding push for forced arbitration, which seeks to replace public courts with private jurisprudence rigged in favor of big players with deep pockets. Apparently, as far as Mr. Dell is concerned, governments should ensure citizens have their voices heard — as long as those voices don’t say anything negative about his corporation’s products.
The growing chorus of companies suddenly “speaking up” about anti-voting laws includes a who’s-who of aspiring monopolists that show little compunction in trampling over the rights of workers and consumers to expand market share, including Google, CBSViacom, AT&T, Comcast, Uber, Lyft, Microsoft, JPMorganChase and Bank of America. Unfortunately, the press seems content amplifying their single-issue statements without considering them in the context of decades of unchecked corporate abuse and consolidation, which continue to fuel the grotesque racial and socioeconomic disparities that anti-voting laws seize on to suppress turnout.
On the relationship between concentrated corporate power and the franchise, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are instructive. Writing in The Nation in 1966, King condemned the white power structure’s “limited” embrace of Black freedom, contrasting the recent passage of historic legislation like the Voting Rights Act with the harsh reality that “depressed living standards for [Black Americans] are a structural part of the economy,” and that “certain industries are based on the supply of low-wage, underskilled and immobile nonwhite labor.” Unfortunately, these words ring just as true in today’s concentrated corporate climate as they did during the height of the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago. One line from King’s article was particularly prescient: “Jobs are harder to create than voting rolls.” This simple but powerful truth should remind us that by applauding corporate America for their empty commitments on the latter, we risk excusing their parsimony and brutality regarding the former.
If the corporate class truly cares about the rights of the people, they can show it by getting serious about building an economy that provides secure, living-wage jobs to the workers and consumers who create their profits. In the meantime, let’s not waste another second validating their bogus and vapid statements on behalf of Georgia voters.