The myth of corporate neutrality

Prominent Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insist corporations should "stay out of politics," particularly "divisive" issues like voting rights.

Dallas-based AT&T is following the McConnell playbook. Yes, the company says it believes "the right to vote is sacred" and supports "efforts to enhance everyone's ability to vote." But it refused to weigh in on SB 7, the voter suppression law introduced by Texas Republicans. AT&T said that "election laws are complicated, not our company's expertise, and ultimately the responsibility of elected officials." (While SB 7 was defeated on Sunday, it is expected to return soon in a special session.)

AT&T, however, is among the very largest corporate contributors to the sponsors of SB 7. The company donated $574,500 to the sponsors of SB 7 (and the companion bill in the Texas House) over the last three years. 

But even if you ignore AT&T's donations to members of the Texas legislature, this "neutral" posture on voting legislation is a myth. AT&T and other large corporations are currently spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat federal legislation that scholars say is required to save American democracy. 

A comprehensive set of federal voting rights protections, called the For The People Act, passed the House of Representatives in March. The legislation would "a national guarantee of free and fair elections without voter suppression" and, according to the Brennan Center, "thwart virtually every vote suppression bill currently pending in the states."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, is aggressively lobbying against passage of the For The People Act in the Senate. The Chamber claims it would "silence Americans who choose to petition their government or participate in the political process through the collective action of an association or corporation." This is not true. Corporations would still be able to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence politics. The legislation would strengthen disclosure requirements and prohibitions on direct coordination with campaigns. The Chamber dismisses efforts to protect the right to vote as a bid "to enact election law changes on a partisan basis." 

AT&T, according to its own voluntary disclosure, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to support the Chamber's lobbying, including its effort to defeat the For The People Act. Between July and December 2020, the most recent disclosure available, AT&T gave the Chamber $226,700 just to support its direct and grassroots lobbying efforts. AT&T does not disclose how much other money it contributes to the Chamber.

Salesforce, unlike AT&T, publicly announced its opposition to SB 7 in Texas. Last September, Salesforce said it supported federal legislation "to limit states from enacting discriminatory voting laws." But, according to Salesforce's most recent voluntary disclosure, it is an active member of the Chamber. Therefore, Salesforce is financially supporting efforts to defeat federal legislation that could preserve voting rights in Texas and around the country. Salesforce, however, does not disclose how much money it sends to the Chamber.

No matter what the amount, however, Salesforce is attempting to have it both ways. The company is publicly presenting itself as a champion of voting rights while quietly funding efforts to defeat essential federal legislation to protect voting rights. 

Most major companies are members of the Chamber, and they are not required by law to disclose their relationship or dues paid. According to a research provided to Popular Information by Accountable.us, the following companies are members of the Chamber and provide some details about their financial contributions: American Airlines (at least $10,000), Bank of America (at least $25,000), Microsoft ($500,000 to $999,999), Disney ($250,001 to $500,000), PepsiCo (over $500,000), Johnson & Johnson ($250,000 to $500,000), and Ford ($100,000 to $499,999). Target, Facebook, and IBM also disclose their membership with the Chamber but not any information about dues. Many other companies are dues-paying members of the Chamber but keep their involvement under wraps. All of these companies are supporting the Chamber's efforts to defeat new federal protections for voting rights. 

A lot has changed in 15 years

Not long ago, corporate America was willing to advocate aggressively for voting rights. In 2005, "the Wal-Mart CEO, Lee Scott, sent a letter to President Bush urging him to support an extension of the Voting Rights Act." Other businesses, including Disney, CBS, Eli Lily, and Pfizer, followed suit. And corporations played a key role in convincing Bush to sign the legislation despite "strong resistance from southern Republicans." 

Today, with democracy under sustained attack, corporations are flexing their muscle under the banner of the Chamber to defeat legislation that could protect voting rights. 

What is at stake

On Monday, a group of prominent scholars released a joint statement with a stark message: "[O]ur entire democracy is now at risk."

When democracy breaks down, it typically takes many years, often decades, to reverse the downward spiral. In the process, violence and corruption typically flourish, and talent and wealth flee to more stable countries, undermining national prosperity. It is not just our venerated institutions and norms that are at risk—it is our future national standing, strength, and ability to compete globally.

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes. They are seeking to restrict access to the ballot, the most basic principle underlying the right of all adult American citizens to participate in our democracy. They are also putting in place criminal sentences and fines meant to intimidate and scare away poll workers and nonpartisan administrators.

The scholars warn that, in future elections, these new laws "politicizing the administration and certification of elections" may allow "partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election." As a result, "whether the United States will remain a democracy" is an open question.

"The most effective remedy for these anti-democratic laws at the state level," the scholars argue, "is federal action to protect equal access of all citizens to the ballot and to guarantee free and fair elections."

According to the signatories, "[H]istory will judge what we do at this moment." 

The ongoing threat of Trumpism

If these scholars seem alarmist, consider that Trump, who remains outrageously popular within the Republican Party, is telling people that he expects to be "reinstated" as president in August.

At an event this weekend in Texas, former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn endorsed a coup, like the one that occurred in Myanmar, to get Trump back in the White House.

The risk to Democracy will not follow the script of Trump or Flynn's fantasies. But their comments reflect a total disregard for democratic process by Trump and a core of his supporters. 

Many of the voter suppression bills contain legal mechanisms for political partisans to assume control over the election system or ignore votes. In Texas, for example, SB 7 contained a provision that would allow a judge to void an election without even discerning who got the most legitimate votes. 

It’s these new “legal” methods to disregard democratic outcomes that pose an existential threat to American democracy.