Jack Devlin, Staff Photographer
On April 10, nearly 100 major chief executive officers participated in a special “pop up crisis response caucus” convened by Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld after Georgia passed a law restricting voting access in the state through measures such as more rigid voter identification requirements and limiting drop boxes.
The summit –– which was organized in fewer than 48 hours –– assembled CEOs from all parts of American industry, including healthcare, finance, manufacturing, transportation and technology. They met to discuss the recent passage of more restrictive voting laws across the country and to organize a response from the business community in opposition to these laws.
The new voting rights law in Georgia will limit the number of drop boxes — locations where voters can securely deposit their ballots — in a number of highly populated counties. Fulton County, one of the largest in the state, with a population of just over a million people, had 38 drop boxes in 2020. For the next election, there will only be eight in the county. The bill also cuts nearly in half the number of days for early voting, and makes it a misdemeanor to give food or water to people in line to vote.
“With the spreading storm of 47 states following the misguided Georgia legislation, and the business community wanting to get involved, business leaders right now are the most respected pillar of public trust after the military, which doesn’t have an independent voice,” Sonnenfeld said. “Academia, media and elected officials have lost a step and sadly even the clergy have lost some of their public trust, whereas surprisingly business leaders right now are temporarily in a position of great public trust… so they’ve risen to the occasion.”
Sonnenfeld explained that many CEOs have started to take tangible action after last Saturday’s meeting. He pointed to Apple as an example of a company considering direct intervention in Georgia if others feel uncomfortable doing so.
He also explained that Brad Karp, chairman of law firm Paul, Weiss, has assembled “swat teams” of lawyers from 80 of the top 100 law firms that are able to go into states and help with the legal battle to retain voting access and block voting restrictions.
“[The CEOs] were there to support each other, but also to make a really strong statement that capital markets are in jeopardy if people don’t have trust in the system that democracy has to function properly,” Sonnenfeld said. “Voter access is very much imperiled by these unjustified voter restrictions, which are based on the big lie of there having been a stolen presidential election. So they all stood out for that and it was quite courageous.”
Sonnenfeld also said that some CEOs are helping curtail support for the political campaigns of legislators who promoted voting restrictions. In addition, he said they are supporting a federal law that establishes national standards for voter access, as well as extending paid time off on election days.
He specifically mentioned CEOs of major airlines, such as Delta and American Airlines, who advocated for business leaders’ action in response to voter restrictions during the meeting.
“After having time to now fully understand all that is in the bill, coupled with discussions with leaders and employees in the Black community, it’s evident that the bill includes provisions that will make it harder for many underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives,” CEO of Delta Airlines Ed Bastian wrote in a memo to his employees in response to the Georgia bill. “That is wrong.”
In an email to the News, Kennedy Bennett ’22, the vice president of Yale College Democrats, expressed just how important this fight for voting rights today is, describing it as a “continuation of past efforts” to overturn unconstitutional voter restrictions that “have disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities.”
HR1, also known as the For the People Act, is the Democrats’ large overhaul of national voting laws. The bill includes provisions to standardize voter registration and absentee voting laws, establishes a nonpartisan redistricting commission in order to avoid partisan gerrymandering and requires greater transparency in financial disclosures.
Bennet said that HR1 would provide vital protections for voting rights. “This is a historic piece of legislation that would protect democracy and voting across the country,” she said.
Yale Democrats are also working in Connecticut to ensure that voting is made easier, according to Bennet.
“This semester, Yale Dems has advocated on behalf of several legislative bills, one of which is CT Senate Bill 5,” Bennet said. The bill would increase voter registration, allow parolees who haven’t yet paid all their fines to vote, allow ex-convicts to vote and would make Election Day a holiday. Legislative fellows for Yale Dems testified to the Connecticut General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee in late March in support of the bill.
Sonnenfeld has held similar CEO summits in the past, but he said that most of them are planned six to eight months in advance. One exception, he pointed out, was his emergency summit this past November, which he convened in response to misinformation spread by former President Donald Trump about potential outcomes of the 2020 presidential election.
While the summits are typically not politically-oriented, Sonnenfeld said that the Georgia voter restrictions resembled a big enough “call to action” to host last Saturday’s summit.
“Every part of American industry was there, and was quite concerned and enthusiastic,” Sonnenfeld said. “[The CEOs] all had kind of a defiant spirit that they don’t want to be muzzled by political leaders that tell them to give us your money and shut up.”
SOM’s next CEO summit is scheduled for June 3.
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