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Corporate Leaders Meet To Discuss Restrictive Voting Measures

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than 100 chief executives and corporate leaders joined a call over the weekend. They discussed their objections to state voter restrictions across this country. Republican lawmakers already passed new restrictions in Georgia, and a bunch of other states may follow. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is a professor in management at Yale and helped to organize the call. He's on the line. Good morning, sir.

JEFFERY SONNENFELD: Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: OK, thank you very much. Welcome to the program. Who were some of these companies?

SONNENFELD: Well, it's the biggest planets on the Earth. Many of their names have appeared in the media. I shouldn't be naming them but some of the ones I've seen in the press (laughter) not to confirm...

INSKEEP: Well, I guess we can mention - some of them have already publicly expressed objections - companies like Delta of Georgia. And it was reported that Starbucks, Merck, the AMC Theater chain.

SONNENFELD: Yeah, so the largest airlines are also with - American Airlines and United. So, by the way, if somebody wants to boycott an airline, hopefully they have their own corporate jet. We had the biggest companies from pharma to finance, from technology to transportation. Even the major railroads were there. We had the CEOs of professional service firms, like Paul, Weiss, the big law firm, and Boston Consulting Group in that space, as well as health care to manufacturing.

INSKEEP: And now I just want to remind people what this is about. These are voter restrictions in multiple states. The proposals are different in multiple states, but there are a lot of places where early voting is being reduced. New requirements are being added to mail-in ballots or absentee ballots.

In Georgia, there's a very specific restriction where the secretary of state, who correctly upheld the election results in 2020, had that power stripped from him, and the legislature wants to do it instead. This is the kind of thing that's being discussed. Is it clear to you that all the companies object to those kinds of legislation and want to do something about it?

SONNENFELD: Yeah, they - and even the companies in Georgia had been working assiduously backstage. And I was critical of them, even though I knew they were working backstage. But they didn't realize how bad the final law was going to be. None of us did because it was drafted overnight and rushed through the lower House in the morning and then late morning with the upper House, and the governor signed it, probably unable to have even himself read the 100-page document. So it passed without realizing the kind of - some of the things you're talking about were still in there. So it was 80% better, 20% still bad.

But the big pernicious threat are the other 47 states where this same disease is spreading. It's based on a - premised on a flaw, and - of course, of the stolen elections and widespread election fraud, which we know did not happen. And the CEOs are outraged in the interests of patriotism rather than any kind of raking (ph) short-term self-interest. They just don't want angry communities and finger-pointing workforces and hostile shareholders. It makes their job tougher. They want a harmonious, honest society.

INSKEEP: Well, help me figure out something here because we are in this situation where a lot of people boycott or pressure corporations to take political stances. And that is certainly the case here. Companies like Delta are under pressure. It would seem that we have some CEOs who want to act. But there are also a lot of Americans who do not like the idea of money giving you a larger voice in politics. And these are entities that presumably have some power because they make a lot of money and spend a lot of money. So what is the appropriate role for a corporation in this partisan argument, and what is something they might actually do?

SONNENFELD: Well, half of all major companies are talking about cutting off any of their campaign finance support for legislators or elected officials who vote for these voter restrictions, which they do see as voter suppression. And they're also talking about curtailing the movement of large investments into states that do this. They haven't decided unanimously to do this, but there are - but large numbers of them are already starting to do that. That's some that they can do.

Some have never, ever given campaign money. And in fact, the corporate dollar in the campaigns is not as large as people think. It's the individual - wealthy individuals, of course, that wealth - that really towers over that. But there's some of the things they can also do, which have to do with, you know, where they relocate events, like the Major League Baseball decision, which turns out to have been far more popular than the general public, even among base - avid baseball fans than any of us imagined. But there are major things they can do.

The CEO of the big law firm, Paul, Weiss, has bonded together 60 of the nation's top 100 law firms to be able to be dispatched as SWAT teams to go state by state to have expert legal opinions working on election reform issues. If people try to change the laws, they're in there to help protect voter access. So these are just a small number of the things that they can do beyond signing petitions. But there's some companies that have never given money. IBM's never given a dollar to - for campaign, but they - and their voice is still heard.

INSKEEP: In just a sentence or two, did you hear somebody, anybody on this call say, look, I'm conservative, I'm Republican, but this is anti-democratic, I must act?

SONNENFELD: We had James Murdoch on the call. I mean, we had a lot of bedrock companies there that are quite conservative and probably 65%, 70% of the attendees were Republican. I wouldn't know how conservative they were. They - and probably not a large number of them were Trump supporters. But they're certainly conservative.

INSKEEP: Got you. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale, thanks.

SONNENFELD: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.