Activists target corporate campaign cash in battle against voting restrictions

By: - December 14, 2021 6:05 am

GM headquarters, Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Updated, 5:59 p.m., 12/14/21

Members of the Defend Black Voters Coalition chose Detroit’s Huntington Center as their backdrop earlier this month when they issued a warning about the dangers of “voter suppression legislation” backed by Republican state lawmakers.

The building behind them, formerly known as the TCF Center, was a powerful symbol of what could happen if elections indeed are undermined. It’s  where conservative poll challengers tried to interfere in Michigan’s tumultuous vote count during the 2020 election.

The coalition called on Michigan-based corporations General Motors, Ford, DTE Energy, and CMS Energy to pledge to end campaign contributions to state lawmakers who are working to make it harder for Black people in Michigan to cast ballots.

“We’re calling on you to stop the voter suppression you enable by cutting off these legislators,” said Jennifer Disla, co-chair of the coalition, a multi-racial group in Michigan formed to protect democracy, and co-executive director of Detroit Action.

It’s a strategy they said is necessary when corporations voice support for Black communities and voting rights publicly while quietly giving money to members of Republican-controlled state legislatures who are trying to institute voting restrictions.

A group called Defend Black Voters Coalition on Thursday called on Michigan companies to cut off funding to legislators who support what they described as “voter-suppression legislation.” | Ken Coleman photo

And while it may seem like an indirect way to appeal to state legislators, the activists are building on a recent pattern of increased consumer consciousness and pressure for corporate accountability when it comes to what they call anti-democratic drives to make voting more difficult.

In April, the leaders of three dozen major Michigan corporations, including GM, Ford and DTE Energy, issued a joint statement denouncing voter suppression.

But the four Michigan companies targeted in the new campaign have together donated more than $694,000 since 2016 to the state lawmakers involved in the push to make it harder for Black people to vote, according to an analysis by the coalition.

So far, none of the corporations have said they will take the pledge.

Coalition members met last week with the senior vice president of governmental, regulatory and public affairs at CMS Energy, Brandon Hofmeister, and the director of its political action committee.

But Byron Hobbs, an organizer with the coalition’s national partner, Community Change Action, said that Hofmeister “was not supportive of CMS taking the [pledge] and made no commitment to do so.”

In an email, Katie Carey, director of external relations for CMS Energy, said the company supports making sure “voting remains secure, fair, free and accessible to all Michiganders” and that its political action committee has elected a committee to review and approve all endorsements.

GM said in a statement that it “has called on state lawmakers across the nation to work together in a bipartisan way to ensure that any changes to voting laws preserve and enhance the most precious element of democracy — the right to vote in a fair, free, and equitable manner.”

But GM did not say whether it would sign a pledge to end its campaign contributions to state lawmakers supporting restrictive voting laws. The giant automaker added that the employee-funded PAC supports “candidates from both sides of the aisle who foster sound business policies, support American workers and understand the importance of a robust domestic auto industry.”

Ford and DTE Energy did not respond to requests for comment. Ford told Popular Information that it believes that “equitable access to voting rights for all people is the bedrock of a democratic society,” but would not say whether it would continue to contribute to Michigan legislators seeking to restrict voting.

DTE Energy in Detroit | Susan J. Demas

GOP pushes petition initiative

Despite no evidence of any widespread fraud in the state’s 2020 election, Republican lawmakers in Michigan are pushing for changes they say would make the election process more secure.

The lawmakers are backing a petition initiative called Secure MI Vote, which would amend the election code to enhance photo identification requirements, prevent the mailing of unsolicited absentee ballots and applications, and eliminate the affidavit voting option, among other measures.

Proponents of the initiative are collecting signatures to either send the proposal to the Legislature for approval — which does not need the governor’s signature — or to the ballot in the next general election.

The petition came after Michigan’s GOP-controlled Legislature repeatedly attempted to pass a slate of stricter voter laws this year. The bills were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who said they were an attempt to suppress the vote and perpetuate the “Big Lie.”

“I will have no part in any effort that grants an ounce of credence to this deception, so injurious to our democracy,” Whitmer wrote in a letter to legislators in October. “The 2020 election was free, secure, and accurate.”

Ponsella Hardaway, the executive director of Detroit-based community organization MOSES and a member of the Defend Black Voters Coalition, said before turning to the corporations, the coalition attempted to persuade Republican lawmakers in Lansing to give up on the voting restrictions.

But, she said, their protests were not enough.

“It was clearly not effective,” she said. “They are very arrogant about what they want to do, and they don’t feel a need to make sure things are fair. The [coalition] leaders who were there walked away angry and thought this was a losing battle.”

Hobbs said that’s a pattern across the country.

“Groups like ours unfortunately don’t have a lot of power in Republican-controlled state legislatures,” he  said. “It’s almost a waste of time to try to convince a Republican legislator, and gerrymandering has made it even worse.”

“It was that reason,” he said, that “the corporate angle makes the most sense.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed voter restriction bills. | Laina G. Stebbins

Georgia experience

Michigan activists’ strategy followed a high-profile campaign earlier this year in Georgia, where advocates pressured companies to oppose a strict voting law that GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law in March.

They said the law suppresses voters by setting limitations on drop boxes, strengthening voter ID requirements for absentee ballots, and criminalizing efforts to give food or water to people waiting in line to vote, among other measures. Activists there took aim at major Georgia-based corporations including Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines.

They got results. In early April, the Delta and Coca-Cola CEOs publicly criticized the law, calling it “unacceptable.” Also in response to the campaign, Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game out of Atlanta, citing opposition to the restrictive voting law.

The pressure also clearly angered Kemp, who went on the defensive. “These corporate companies are being attacked by activist groups that have a financial interest in doing so,” he said on CNBC in March.

Although the restrictive voting law is still in effect (several lawsuits are currently challenging it, including one by the Department of Justice), activists said seeing major corporations come out against it was still a victory.

Cliff Albright, co-founder of the national organization Black Voters Matter Fund, called the corporate accountability campaign a success because it sparked a larger national conversation and led to similar actions in Florida and Texas.

“We may have lost the battle in Georgia around that bill but the wider struggle still continues and corporate accountability remains a part of that discussion,” Albright said.

He noted that the campaign helped introduce a new playbook into the fight for voting rights that has existed for other policy battles like bathroom bills in recent years.

Corporate accountability campaigns around bathroom bills had remarkable success, he said. After a number of states threatened to pass bills in 2016 and 2017 that would discriminate against transgender people, companies threatened to move their business away from the states, and the measures never made it to law.

The same strategy for voting rights battles is a new but growing movement, he said.

“That movement that really started with Georgia has taken shape,” he said. “It still needs to be refined, but it’s hard to do that when we’re still fighting the bare bones legislative battles and litigation battles. We’ve got to fight on multiple fronts.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp | Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Corporations under pressure

Corporations across the U.S. are facing new demands to take public stances against voter suppression in general and in Congress.

In April, nearly 200 companies signed a letter, organized by Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group that encourages civic participation from businesses, opposing restrictive voting laws across the country — although the letter mentioned no specific states or measures.

Hundreds of major companies, from Google and Amazon to Starbucks and Netflix, signed onto a statement in May against voter suppression. The Black Economic Alliance and Black business leaders have led the effort to pressure companies to both denounce laws that would restrict Black voters and to use their money and clout to influence lawmakers.

In June, hundreds of companies signed a letter to Congress urging the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which has stalled amid mostly GOP opposition in the Senate.

But a recent analysis from Accountable.US found that eight of the corporations that signed the letter, including Amazon, Dell, and Facebook, collectively donated $164,500 to GOP senators who voted against allowing debate on the measure.

That’s why activists want corporations to go beyond issuing statements and signing letters. They’re demanding that companies divest from lawmakers who support voting restrictions and donate money to lawmakers on what they view as the right side of the debate.

Some say they’re willing to initiate boycotts if corporations aren’t responsive to the campaigns, although boycotts are controversial among activists.

In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, who is now running for the Democratic nomination for governor, pointed out they would hurt working class citizens employed by the corporations. In Michigan, Hardaway said boycotts would be difficult because so many in Detroit have ties to automakers, and it’s impossible to fully boycott utility companies.

But if the corporations refuse to sign the pledge to stop supporting Republicans backing voter suppression, Hobbs said the coalition will regroup in January and think about escalation tactics like demonstrations at shareholder meetings or other mobilization efforts.

“These campaigns against corporations really have to be about accountability and not persuasion,” Hobbs said. “We’re not asking corporations to do the right thing or to save our democracy. It really is about holding them accountable.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified the title of the individual that met with the Defend Black Voters Coalition. Coalition members met with the senior vice president of governmental, regulatory and public affairs at CMS Energy, Brandon Hofmeister.

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Kira Lerner
Kira Lerner

Kira Lerner is the democracy reporter for States Newsroom where she covers voting, elections, redistricting, and efforts to subvert democracy. Before joining States Newsroom, Kira was managing editor of Votebeat, a pop-up newsroom launched to cover election administration and voting before and after the 2020 election. She has also covered voting rights, criminal justice, and civil rights issues for outlets including The Appeal and ThinkProgress. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, Slate, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets. Kira has a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is a native of the Washington, D.C. area.

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