May 18, 2022

A group of black business executives are pleading with business leaders in the US to stand up against efforts to restrict access to voting after Georgia passed a new law that critics say will disproportionately harm color voters.

Two of the organizers – Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, and Ken Chenault, former CEO of American Express – appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday, describing the effort as a moral obligation in the face of longstanding injustices among black voters.

“Companies have to stand up. There is no middle ground,” said Chenault, one of the first black directors of a Fortune 500 company. “This is about all Americans having the right to vote, but we have to recognize the special history of denial of the right to vote for black Americans and we will not be silent,” he added.

Republican lawmakers in Georgia supported the state’s latest legislation, and the Democrats opposed it. Former President Donald Trump, who lost to Biden, and other Republicans have falsely claimed that Georgia‚Äôs elections last year were fraudulent. President Joe Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992 in November, and two Democrats – Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff – also defeated their GOP opponents in runoff elections.

Civil rights groups in Georgia criticized some of the state’s largest corporations for failing to be more vocal and direct against the legislation before it was incorporated into law by GOP Governor Brian Kemp last week.

A number of companies made statements later Wednesday after the Frazier and Chenault interview expressing their support for the right to vote. In a memo to staff on Wednesday morning, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian expressed his displeasure with the final version of Georgian legislation, calling it “unacceptable”.

Another Georgian company’s CEO, James Quincey of Coca-Cola, told CNBC that the new law was “wrong”.

In an interview on CNBC’s “Closing Bell,” Kemp dismissed the company’s backlash, repeatedly claiming that it was making voting in the state safer while denouncing its provisions, such as making ballot boxes a permanent part of elections.

“Last year there were counties that didn’t even have a Dropbox because they’d never been required by law before,” Kemp said, noting that all Georgia counties have at least one Dropbox. However, critics say the legislation will result in their availability being reduced in populous counties like Fulton and Dekalb.

“We have 159 counties in Georgia. One hundred and thirty-four of those counties under this legislation offer more hours of early voting, not less. So I encourage these CEOs to look at these other states where they do business and compare the real facts with Georgia, and I think their focus must probably be elsewhere, not here, “said Kemp.

Earlier on Wednesday Frazier stressed that he was concerned about the introduction of restrictive voting proposals in other states.

“Georgia is at the forefront of a movement across the country that is restricting access to voting,” said Frazier. He added, “This kind of bills needs to be stopped because you actually have to spend time reading this bill to understand what it’s doing, and I think companies should have a very strong one in Georgia and every other place To take position.”

Frazier strongly pushed back on the suggestion that deliberately condemning Georgian changes and similar efforts in other states would falsely get companies caught up in a tangle of party politics.

Free and fair access to the ballot was never a partisan issue. It is a fundamental right of the constitution.

“If we allow a party to adopt voter suppression as one of its basic strategies, I don’t think the answer should be, ‘Well, we cannot comment on voter suppression because otherwise we will be partisan,” said Frazier, who will retire as CEO of Merck later this year after a decade at the helm. “Free and fair access to the ballot has never been a partisan issue. It is a constitutional right. ”

For Georgian law in particular, Frazier stressed that he was not claiming that every single provision was restrictive and hurt black voters. For example, proponents of the bill mandate two Saturdays for early voting in the run-up to the general election if only one was previously required.

Many other issues are problematic, Frazier said, such as the restriction on the location and accessibility of ballot boxes and restrictions on the distribution of food and water to voters while they are in line. Other reviewers have noted that the law cuts the time allotted to requesting a postal vote. “Overall, these changes will make it much more difficult for certain voters to cast their votes,” said Frazier.

“There is already no equal access,” added Frazier, citing data showing longer waiting times for black voters in Georgia than for whites. “We say that from state to state, unless there is solid and compelling evidence of electoral fraud, any action taken to limit the electorate of voters should be rejected,” he said.

A sign is seen as voters line up for the U.S. Senate runoff election at a polling station in Marietta, Georgia, the United States, Jan. 5, 2021.

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Among the dozen of business leaders who have endorsed Frazier and Chenault’s efforts is Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO and President of Ariel Investments. Hobson became chairman of the Starbucks board of directors earlier this month. She is the only black chairman of an S&P 500 company. Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, and Vista Equity Partners founder and CEO Robert Smith also signed the Frazier and Chenault-organized letter that was published as an advertisement in Wednesday’s New York Times.

Corporations need to recognize their power to make changes in critical aspects of democracy, Chenault said. “If you cannot comment on this, what can you comment on?” he asked rhetorically. “People shouldn’t be focusing on, ‘Will it hurt if I speak up?” he added.

“With all due respect, many people died for the right to vote, and in this case we are asking companies to take a moral stance. If companies had done this in our history, we would be far more advanced in this regard in terms of racial relations.” Country, “concluded Chenault.

Mallory Blount, a spokesman for Kemp, contrasted Georgia’s early voting guidelines with those of New Jersey, where Merck is headquartered, and New York, where Chenault’s former employer American Express is based.

New Jersey just passed an early personal vote this week, despite the state already having an early personal postal vote. And, unlike most states, including Georgia, New York doesn’t have an apologetic absentee ballot, Blount noted. “We look forward to Mr Frazier and Mr Chenault working to ensure that their states work with Georgia to improve access to voters and secure the ballot box,” she said in an email.

– CNBC’s Hannah Miao contributed to this report.