On Wednesday, I joined 300 other CEOs in signing a petition to advocate for voting rights for all Americans. This followed a call over the weekend with 100 CEOs organized by Yale Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld in which Ken Chenault, former CEO of American Express and Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, explained their opposition to a recently passed bill in the Georgia Legislature that changed voting laws making absentee voting harder and creating restrictions and complications, among other things. During this call, they asked their fellow corporate leaders to speak out on the over 300 bills pending in other state houses across the U.S.
This is unfamiliar terrain for CEOs, more accustomed to working behind the scenes with public officials, leaving public advocacy to NGOs or private citizens. In our deeply divided country, it is generally safer to lobby on those issues which have a direct bearing on your business. But the understandable expectation of employees and consumers to stand up for them in the face of unreasonable restriction of the most basic of American rights, the vote for the candidate of your choice, has prodded us to action.
I signed this petition because it is a non-partisan initiative. I signed because I want my Edelman colleagues to be confident in their ability to participate in their democracy. I signed also because we have new data from a special version of the Edelman Trust Barometer that indicates that it is the will of the American people.
We conducted the survey online last weekend with 2,000 Americans, equally representative of men and women, of white, black, Asian and Hispanic. The study over-indexes Biden voters 1.5 to 1 versus Trump voters. It has a slightly higher percentage of respondents from the South (36 percent), with around 20 percent in other regions. Here are the key findings:
- Nearly 80 percent of respondents believe that CEOs should support voting rights legislation as part of the fight against systemic racism. This is a cumulative score on taking one or more of the following actions, including speaking out against laws that make it more difficult for blacks and Hispanics to vote or sponsor initiatives that make it easier for employees to vote. This is true for both Trump voters (63 percent) and Biden voters (93 percent)
- Two-thirds of employees expect their employers to take one or more actions to provide information and leadership on voting rights. Again, this is a cumulative score on individual actions including making information available on voting rights to those either inside or outside of the company. This is remarkably similar to the percent of employees asking for their companies to lead on providing information on vaccination. There is a larger difference between Trump voters (46 percent) and Biden voters (81 percent)
- Fifty-nine percent of respondents feel it is appropriate for CEOs to speak out against state legislation that is discriminatory or unethical, yet there is a large difference between Trump voters (36 percent) and Biden voters (76 percent)
- Seventy-six percent of Americans believe that elections can be both accessible and secure. The exact question was: “Is it possible that elections are secure without making it more difficult for certain groups of citizens to vote?” This was agreed by 70 percent of Trump voters and 80 percent of Biden voters. Voting rights are prioritized over election security by 60 percent of respondents. Again, there was a significant difference between Trump voters (33 percent) and Biden voters (78 percent)
Our advice to CCOs advising their CEOs on societal issues is clear. Don’t weigh in on every issue at every level. Speak up when you have a direct stake in the outcome such as a voting rights bill in your home state. Speak to the employees whether or not you speak publicly. Explain to the consumers and employees your principles in advance so that there is a frame of reference. Take your time as Walmart did in the wake of the El Paso murder of 25 Hispanics, leading to the banning of automatic weapon ammunition in stores.
I am proud of the role that Edelman has played and continues to play in urging business and in particular CEOs to step into the void left by government. In this period of information bankruptcy and instability, business has to be a primary source of objective facts, a catalyst for change and a standard-bearer for universal values.
Richard Edelman is CEO.