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Business leaders take their election law fights behind the scenes after attacks from Republicans – CNBC

Demonstrators protest inside of the Capitol building in opposition of House Bill 531 on March 8, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Megan Varner | Getty Images

Corporate leaders are now fighting behind the scenes against Republican-supported voting laws they consider too restrictive, following repeated attacks from GOP leaders and their well-funded allies.

Since the outcry earlier this year over the passage of Georgia’s new voting law, which critics say unfairly targets minorities, many executives and companies are now airing out their concerns in private, according to multiple people briefed on the matter. Some executives have said they are concerned that the laws could hurt their employees.

Companies such as Coca-Cola and organizations such as Major League Baseball protested the Georgia law. GOP officials in other states, including Texas, have pushed legislation criticized by Democrats and voting rights activists.

Some people who spoke with CNBC declined to be named in this article in a bid to avoid retribution. Others declined to be named since these efforts are in progress and details have yet to be made public.

Executives are attempting to sway lawmakers at state and federal levels, including advocacy for the Democratic-backed John Lewis Voting Rights and For the People acts in Congress.

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One of the campaigns at the state level involves pressuring NCAA leaders to come out with a forceful response to voting laws being introduced in Texas, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said. Another features a legion of corporate attorneys responding to voting laws being crafted in Pennsylvania.

The shift to behind-the-scenes campaigns comes after top Republicans, including the governors of Texas and Georgia, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, slammed corporate leaders for taking a stand against the voting laws.

“There is some real behind the scenes work to try to get corporations that decided, ‘Hey, taking on Republican leaders publicly isn’t the best tactic,’ and decided working with lobbyists behind the scenes to get rid of some of these provisions is a better path,” Tom Rogers, the former CEO of TiVo and a former NBC executive who helped found CNBC and MSNBC, said in an interview Thursday. Rogers said he has been in touch with executives involved in the effort.

The behind-the-scenes effort also comes after hundreds of business leaders and corporations signed a public statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.”

The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice says that as of March, legislators have introduced 361 bills with restrictive voting provisions in 47 states.

The new Georgia voting law, according to an analysis, creates stricter guidelines on acceptable voter identification, a limitation on the amount of drop boxes in certain counties and an effective ban of third party groups giving out water to people standing on line at the polls.

Georgia-based Coca-Cola’s CEO James Quincey took aim at the state’s voting law in an interview with CNBC. Quincey and Coca-Cola are being targeted in an advertising campaign by groups such as conservative outfit Consumers’ Research.

American Airlines, which is headquartered in Texas, came out against a state bill the company said has “provisions that limit voting access.” Consumers’ Research is also targeting the airline’s CEO, Doug Parker.

Home state response

Privately, business leaders are targeting specific laws within their home states, according to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a leadership expert and Yale professor who organized virtual meetings with corporate executives to decide on a response after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed his state’s law.

“The next stage is taking a look at the state-by-state issues,” Sonnenfeld said, describing recent conversations with executives. “The business community has to drill down to state-by-state efforts.”

Some of the moves go beyond the broader public statements that many companies have signed, Sonnenfeld and others said. In many cases, corporations are trying to play a balancing act in responding to laws they deem as restrictive and possibly unconstitutional, while also trying to come off as nonpartisan.

One such effort involves business leaders pressuring the heads of the NCAA, the national college athletic organization, to have a similar response as they did after North Carolina passed its transgender bathroom ban in 2016, a person familiar with the lobbying push said.

Following that bill’s passage, the NCAA pulled at least seven collegiate championship games from North Carolina. The bill was later repealed and the NCAA subsequently lifted its ban.

Now, a person familiar with the lobbying effort says, business leaders opposed to the Texas voting proposals are pushing the NCAA to make a similar move in the Lone Star State if the bill becomes law.

The group Progress Texas has said the NCAA should consider withdrawing from having future basketball tournament games in Texas.

A press representative for the NCAA responded to CNBC’s inquiry by pointing to a statement released by its board of governors in April.

“While voting integrity is essential to the election process, an equal and fair opportunity for all Americans to vote cannot be diminished in any way, and we wholeheartedly support efforts to assist all in exercising this fundamental right,” the statement says.

Another effort in Texas links back to a letter that was signed by over 180 local business and community leaders, as well as 50 corporations, including American Airlines, NBC News reported earlier this month. The letter calls on “all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot.”

Though there was no specific mention of a particular bill in the letter, these corporate leaders have been privately engaging with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, stressing that these bills could have a negative impact on companies’ employees, a person familiar with the outreach told CNBC.

Patrick said in April that he had heard from an American Airlines executive who apparently told him the company was going to oppose voting legislation within a state bill. In April, The Texas Tribune says the bill, if signed into law, “would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify.”

The response from companies privately and publicly seems to have made a difference in Texas. The Texas House has passed a pared-down version of one of the bills that included voting legislation. It’s now up for a vote in the state Senate.

Sonnenfeld also pointed to Pennsylvania, where Brad Karp, a lawyer and chairman of legal giant Paul Weiss, has organized a group of almost 100 lawyers to respond to any potential restrictive voting laws in that state. Karp declined to comment further to CNBC when asked about this effort.

The Brennan Center lists a dozen Pennsylvania state bills that it says restricts voting. Pennsylvania has a Democratic governor, but Republicans control the legislature.

Organizing future responses

While several corporations are battling the various GOP-backed voting laws in certain states, there is also an effort to garner business support for two different federal voting rights bills.

Business leaders, along with the Michelle Obama-backed voter registration group When We All Vote, and their allies, including some corporate members of Time to Vote, are putting together a statement in support of the For the People Act, according to people familiar with the move.

Time to Vote promotes itself as a “nonpartisan effort for companies that want to contribute to the culture shift needed to increase voter participation in our country’s elections.” Over 700 companies, according to Time to Vote’s website, have joined the organization, including Bank of America, Nike, Discovery and ViacomCBS.

The For the People Act recently passed the Democratic-led House and is being considered in the evenly divided Senate. Experts at the Brennan Center say it “would curb voter suppression and make it easier for all Americans to register to vote and cast a ballot. It would outlaw partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts.”

A When We All Vote representative declined to comment further.

Corporations are also looking at signing a letter to congressional lawmakers that would be in support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, according to a person directly involved with the planning. If introduced and later passed, the law would help limit voting restrictions.

Both laws face long odds in the Senate.

Corporations that have signaled willingness to sign the letter to support the voting rights act include payment company PayPal, technology giant Salesforce, and candy and pet food company Mars, this person said.

These corporations did not return requests for comment.