“STAY OUT OF POLITICS,” warned Mitch McConnell, the senate’s top Republican, representing Kentucky. It was a message to the American business community in response to the condemnation by some prominent business leaders of a new law in Georgia that suppresses black votes. Though he later softened his rebuke, other elected officials and conservative voices have echoed the sentiment. But it is misguided. Companies have a vested interest in the soundness of American democracy—and are obligated to use their voice and influence when core principles of democracy are threatened.
Among the most central tenets of democracy is the right of every eligible citizen to have access to vote and to have that vote counted. The right to vote is, as the Supreme Court explained in 1886, “preservative of all rights” and fundamental to our democratic character. It is why businesses are speaking out to protect its sanctity.
The century-long effort to deny that right to black people after the Civil War remains one of the most shameful periods of American history. The powerful demands of the civil-rights movement, which resulted in the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, began to unlock the stranglehold of Jim Crow laws in the South, which kept black people from casting a ballot. Those laws—such as the poll tax and literacy test—were put forward as neutral, but enacted with full knowledge that they would disproportionately thwart black voters (like Georgia’s voting law, which restricts early voting and the use of drop boxes, and makes it illegal to hand out water to people waiting in line to vote, among other things).
Overcoming Jim Crow laws required protests, deaths and the VRA—considered the crown jewel of civil-rights legislation. Until recently, support for the VRA was bipartisan. It was repeatedly reauthorised under Republican presidents and backed by Republican legislators. In 2006, President George W. Bush extended it for 25 years. Companies recognised then that voting rights are not a partisan issue. Firms such as Walmart, Eli Lilly and the influential Business Roundtable explicitly called for its reauthorisation. The Senate vote in 2006 was 98-0.
Beyond voting, companies have also spoken out in recent years on an array of critical issues. After a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018, some major companies broke ties with the National Rifle Association and retailers placed additional restrictions on gun and ammunition sales. When a landmark LGBTQ rights case, Obergefell vs Hodges, was before the Supreme Court in 2015, nearly 400 companies signed an amicus brief urging the court to guarantee same-sex couples the right to marry.
Moreover, in three different Supreme Court cases over 12 years, dozens of Fortune 500 companies signed on to amicus briefs supporting the right of universities to consciously pursue diversity during their admissions processes. In one such brief, firms argued that “to succeed in their businesses, they must be able to hire highly trained employees of all races, religions, cultures and economic backgrounds” who have been a part of a “broadly diverse student body”.
These examples underscore that business involvement in public policy is not new nor unusual. In fact, it is something Mr McConnell himself has advocated. He defended the private sector’s right to speak through money when he (unsuccessfully) sued the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in 2003 to end restrictions on corporate giving. A subsequent case, Citizens United vs FEC, partially overturned this decision and allowed firms to make unlimited donations to political groups. Mr McConnell welcomed the ruling. His warning to companies to “stay out of politics”—despite happily accepting their campaign contributions—is antithetical to views he has himself expressed.
The riot at the Capitol on January 6th puts a spotlight on the need for America’s private-sector leaders to stand even more firmly on the side of democracy. Rather than wait to respond to the next crisis or to respond to calls for boycotts, companies must commit themselves now to protecting and strengthening democracy as a matter of everyday practice.
Companies need clear business plans that put democracy front and centre. Amorphous commitments to “diversity and inclusion” are not enough. Even firms that issued statements committing themselves to racial justice last summer during unrest over the killing of George Floyd by police officers failed to see the connection between their vow and the need to speak out against voter-suppression laws.
Businesses must expand their conception of corporate social responsibility (CSR) to include democracy-strengthening initiatives that target the root causes of anti-democratic policies like voter suppression—and help to stop them before they go into effect. This means actively monitoring and condemning legislation, rhetoric and policies that threaten the soundness of our democratic foundations.
The initiative needs to include creating an internal corporate culture that truly allows for civic engagement and ensures that employees’ civil rights are protected and respected. And it puts an obligation on companies to have dedicated CSR staff with responsibilities that are solely focused on aligning the company’s actions and investments with democratic values.
Preserving democracy takes work. It requires public proclamation and collective effort to protect its most treasured elements. Businesses must abandon their selective interest in individual policies and replace it with a broader remit to safeguard the system of governance. This needs an unrelenting, systematic scrutiny of the forces that subvert democracy.
Companies play a powerful role in the ecosystem of democratic governance. They benefit from the freedom, rights and resources that democracy provides for their work and profit. In return, corporate citizenship carries with it the responsibility to uphold democratic values. Rejecting discriminatory voting laws is an important and necessary commitment.
Sherrilyn Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which works to ensure racial justice and equality. Earlier she was a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. She is the author of “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century” (Beacon Press, 2007).