Dozens of corporate America’s most senior black executives are calling on their white peers to speak out against efforts to restrict black voters’ access to the polls, amid controversy over new voting legislation in Georgia.
A letter organised by Ken Chenault, former chief executive of American Express, and Ken Frazier, outgoing chief executive of Merck, was signed by 72 black business leaders and urges companies to back up their rhetorical support for equal ballot access with their public platforms and lobbying power.
The unprecedented campaign positions voting rights as the next battleground on which business will be expected to take a stand and sets up a potential clash with the Republican party, which is pushing dozens of new voting laws that critics argue will disproportionately deter black voters.
It comes almost a year after the killing of George Floyd sparked a wave of pledges by US chief executives to do more to address racial injustices. Activists including the Black Voters Matter campaign have also accused Georgia-based companies including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and UPS of doing too little to oppose new voting restrictions in that state.
“Georgia is the leading edge of a movement all around this country to restrict voting access,” Frazier told CNBC on Wednesday.
Courts had dismissed scores of Republican allegations that the 2020 election was tainted by fraud, he said: “What we’re saying is that, state by state, in the absence of substantiated and compelling evidence of voter fraud, any actions that are taken to restrict the ability of eligible voters should be opposed.”
Chenault told CNBC: “This is a call for action. What we have heard from corporations is general statements about their support for voting rights and against voter suppression. But now we are asking [them to] put those words into action.”
Among the executives who signed the letter were Mellody Hobson, the new Starbucks chair; her fellow Ariel Investments executive John Rogers; and Robert F Smith, founder of Vista Equity Partners.
Delta, one of the Atlanta-based companies in campaigners’ sights over recent weeks, said on Wednesday that it was “closely monitoring” voting rights legislation in Congress and would work with both parties in states across the country to protect the right to vote.
Delta and other Atlanta companies had achieved some success in removing “some of the most egregious measures” from the Georgia bill, Delta chief executive Ed Bastian said, but the final legislation was “unacceptable” and would make it harder for black voters, in particular, to vote.
“The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections. This is simply not true. Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights,” Bastian said.