An organized mob of insurrectionists failed to overturn the 2020 presidential election by overtaking the U.S. Capitol and murdering Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6. However, there is a Plan B, and voter suppression is central to this plan’s success.
Republican legislators in almost every state have introduced bills that could nullify the voice of millions of Democratic voters. These legislators may need to come up with a Plan C, though. U.S. business leaders helped to turn out record numbers of voters last year, and they are already gearing up for the crucial 2022 midterm elections. The big question is whether or not they choose to leverage the get-out-the-vote power of unions, too.
The media spotlight on voting rights swung toward Levi Strauss’ president and CEO Chip Bergh earlier this month, when his company issued a statement drawing the connection between the success of corporate get-out-the-vote efforts last year, and the torrent of voter suppression bills sweeping the nation this year.
“Right now, there are more than 350 bills under consideration in 47 states that would make it harder to register, vote by mail or cast a ballot in person,” Bergh wrote. “These bills aren’t only racist; they represent a significant step backward for us here in the U.S., where we saw record turnout in the 2020 presidential election after many states worked to make voting safe and more accessible in the face of the global pandemic.
The statement was noteworthy, as it came at a time when reporters were beginning to expose corporations that profess to support voting rights, but continue to support Republicans who work to suppress the vote.
Apparently, Levi Strauss is not one of them. Less than 1 percent of the company’s spending on individual candidates went to members of the Republican party in the 2020 election cycle, as tracked by the organization Open Secrets.
Unfortunately, convincing Republican state legislators to stop voter suppression is an uphill battle. Last month, Major League Baseball, for example, took the dramatic step of moving the 2021 All-Star Game out of Georgia in response to a new voter suppression law. The move was apparently a warning shot to other states considering similar legislation, but the voter suppression movement barely blinked.
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Levi Strauss is a case in point. The company has large operations in Kentucky, where a new voting law passed with bipartisan support. Though the new law includes some reforms, it also rolls back some of the voter-friendly procedures introduced last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican-held Kentucky Senate also gave itself the power to change statewide election processes in an emergency.
Two other states in which Levi Strauss has a big footprint are Florida and Texas, where much more onerous bills were introduced. As of this writing, both bills are continuing to move through the state legislatures.
Texas is a particularly egregious example. As noted by Vox, voters in Texas already have to negotiate some of the most restrictive laws in the nation, a burden that has an impact on Democratic-leaning populations more than others. The new legislation is specifically aimed at suppressing even more Democratic votes.
“The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting,” Vox reports.
“The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts,” Vox adds.
Altogether, the state-based voter suppression bills have the effect of accomplishing by law what the insurrections failed to do on January 6: silence the voice of millions of U.S. voters, most of whom lean Democratic.
That will make corporate get-out-the-vote efforts all the more difficult during the 2022 election cycle. However, hundreds of businesses have already begun to organize in support of voting rights.
One key organization to emerge is the Civic Alliance. Levi Strauss is one of more than 1,200 corporate members of the Civic Alliance; the company signed on to an Alliance statement on April 2, which called up on elected officials to “work across the aisle and ensure that every eligible American has the freedom to easily cast their ballot and participate fully in our democracy.”
That may sound like weak tea. However, Civic Alliance members collectively have more than 5.5 million employees on their rolls, and millions more voters among their customers and clients.
More to the point, Alliance members have already demonstrated their ability to take concrete, meaningful actions that help more eligible citizens exercise their right to vote.
During the 2020 election cycle, for example, some companies made Election Day a paid day off. Others paid their employees to volunteer as poll workers at polling places or they created voter information and registration portals for customers and clients.
“The Civic Alliance and its business community rallied to champion voter registration, early voting, vote by mail, and civic participation to employees and customers alike - creating a tipping point in corporate civic engagement,” the organization reported after the 2020 election cycle.
The organization provides toolkits to its members, helping to provide them with a head start on effective employee and customer engagement.
In addition, the Civic Alliance offers an open-source toolkit that helps content creators embed the voter engagement message within narrative entertainment as well as news and events programming.
A concurrent effort is the Time to Vote organization, which launched in 2018 with 300 members. By 2020 it enlisted more than 700 corporate members in a pledge to increase voter participation among employees. The solutions ranged from encouraging vote-by-mail and adjusting work schedules, to offering paid time off on Election Day.
The union factor
Corporate leaders who support voting rights may also find new allies in the revival of the union movement. Unions have historically played key roles in get-out-the-vote efforts. Though their numbers have waned, unions and other organizations can still exercise a powerful influence at the corporate and political level. For example, the Major League Baseball Players Association sparked the decision to shift the All-Star Game.
Another interesting development occurred last week, when the United Mine Workers of America issued a statement in support of President Biden’s climate-friendly infrastructure plan. Though the statement advocated for measures to support existing coal jobs, it also endorsed the plan’s emphasis on new jobs along with education, training, and other civic support.
In addition, President Biden has come out swinging in support of unions.
Earlier this week, the President issued an executive order establishing the new White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, to be chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The cabinet-level task force is charged with “mobilizing the federal government’s policies, programs, and practices to empower workers to organize and successfully bargain with their employers.”
The executive order echoes the findings of public health research, which has linked unions to improved living standards for members and non-members alike.
“They have fought for higher wages, greater job security, safety and health laws, essential benefits like health insurance and retirement plans, and protections from discrimination and sexual harassment for millions of workers across the country,” the executive order reads.
To further underscore the connection between unionization and civil rights, the executive order notes that six in 10 of the nation’s 16 million unionized workers are women and/or people of color.
The executive order firmly puts corporations on notice (break added for readability), stating that almost 60 million more workers would join a union if given a chance.
That certainly puts corporate leaders on the spot. Though naturally inclined to dilute the strength of unions, corporate leaders who truly care about ensuring equal access to the ballot should be willing to support candidates for office who support the efforts of the new Task Force.
If they don’t, well, then all this talk about stopping voter suppression is only so much hot air.
Image credit: Samuel Schroth/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.