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Merck’s CEO, Philly-area law firms and Wharton professors take the lead in opposing voting restrictions

Some big firms like Comcast did not sign a statement that was widely published Wednesday. Still, large companies are increasingly willing to take a vocal — and united — position on voting rights.

Kenneth Frazier, Chief Executive Officer of Merck & Co., Inc., at a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing on Feb. 26, 2019 in Washington. Frazier has organized a recent effort among corporate leaders to oppose voting restrictions. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Kenneth Frazier, Chief Executive Officer of Merck & Co., Inc., at a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing on Feb. 26, 2019 in Washington. Frazier has organized a recent effort among corporate leaders to oppose voting restrictions. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Read morePablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Hundreds of major companies and business leaders signed a statement Wednesday opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would make it harder to vote, escalating the corporate response to nationwide Republican efforts to tighten voting laws following the 2020 election.

The statement, published as an advertisement in major American newspapers, included such corporate titans as Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks, as well as Philadelphia law firms, Wharton School professors, and Malvern-based Vanguard.

But Pennsylvania’s largest companies by revenue were absent from the list, as state lawmakers here mull their own election overhaul.

State legislatures across the country have introduced hundreds of bills that would restrict ballot access, including in Pennsylvania, though legislative leaders in Harrisburg have not advanced them. Instead, lawmakers have been holding a series of hearings and expect to propose major legislation this summer.

New Georgia measures restricting ballot access have drawn comparisons to segregation-era voting laws. Only after the restrictions became law last month, and after sustained pressure from voting rights organizers, did major corporations begin to speak out. Now the message is becoming clearer, as big companies are increasingly willing to take a vocal — and united — position on voting rights.

The new ad underscores that message.

The ad was organized in part by Kenneth Frazier, CEO of pharmaceutical maker Merck & Co., which is based in North Jersey and has a large presence in the Philadelphia region, including a vaccine plant in Montgomery County. Organizers also included Kenneth Chenault, the former chief executive of American Express, as well as the Black Economic Alliance, a political advocacy group. The statement had more than 500 signatories, from such well-known CEOs as Warren Buffett to entertainers such as Orlando Bloom and Ariana Grande.

“We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot,” it said. “Voting is the lifeblood of our democracy and we call upon all Americans to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic and fundamental right of all Americans.”

While the statement emphasizes the nonpartisan nature of defending voting rights, the companies are stepping into a highly charged fight over how Americans vote.

Generally, Democrats tend to focus on expanding access to the vote, backing proposals such as providing more opportunities to cast ballots outside of Election Day. Republicans focus on election security measures, which sometimes means restrictions they say are necessary to ensure integrity, but which can limit access.

The contentious 2020 election — and then-President Donald Trump’s false claims that it was stolen through fraud — fueled a national fight over voting rights and election administration in Congress and statehouses. As with other issues that have become political flashpoints, corporations have been increasingly drawn into the voting wars, most notably in Georgia, where Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines spoke out against the new law.

Republicans have pushed back. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) recently warned corporate America to “stay out of politics,” but said last week that businesses are “entitled” to get involved.

In Pennsylvania, where Republicans control the state legislature but Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, holds veto power, a House committee on Thursday morning will hold its 10th hearing on election issues this year.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), the chair of the House State Government Committee, which handles election legislation and is conducting Thursday’s hearing, said he welcomes input from corporations, but ultimately doesn’t see such moves having real influence on policymaking.

“It’s a stakeholder group coming out and making a statement, we have that all around. Ultimately, corporations don’t vote,” he said. “So it’s nice that they come out and say nice statements, but ultimately they need to look at what we’re doing and what the [proposed] law actually says.”

Big companies traditionally avoid speaking on controversial political topics, preferring to wield influence through campaign donations, lobbying, and trade groups.

While public statements can be risky for big consumer brands, corporations have a vested interest in maintaining clear and consistent rules about voting, said TL Hill, who heads The Temple Fox School of Business’ Department of Strategic Management.

“From a company perspective, it’s about having the rules of the game about the orderly transition of power — which our society depends on and ultimately our economy depends on — to be as absolutely clear and unimpeachable as possible,” Hill said.

None of Pennsylvania’s 22 companies in the Fortune 500 signed the statement. A spokesperson for Philadelphia-based Comcast declined to answer questions about the ad, but noted the cable giant issued a statement about voting two weeks ago. It called voting “fundamental to our democracy” and said “efforts to limit or impede access” to voting are inconsistent with the company’s values.

Lincoln Financial Group, through a spokesperson, pointed to an April 1 statement by CEO Dennis Glass, saying “we support equal access to vote for our employees and their families, for communities of color and for all voters.”

AmerisourceBergen, a major pharmaceutical distributor, said CEO Steve Collis addressed the right to vote in an April 8 internal message to employees, which stated that “any measure designed to limit such ability is not in the best interest of those who make up this great and diverse nation.”

A spokesperson for PNC Bank said while it did not sign this particular statement, the company cares “deeply about this issue.” The bank issued comments by CEO Bill Demchak saying: “PNC will continue to support efforts to provide greater inclusion of all Americans in the electoral process, and we oppose any effort to suppress this fundamental right.”

Other large companies based in the state, including Aramark and Rite Aid didn’t return requests for comment.

A spokesperson for DuPont, the Wilmington-based chemical company, said it wasn’t invited to sign the statement and that “we oppose measures that seek to restrict access to voting.”

Vanguard, the Malvern-based mutual fund giant, was one of the region’s largest firms to add its name to the effort. The firm is “proud to take a nonpartisan stand with other companies to defend the cornerstone of our democracy,” a spokesperson said. “At Vanguard, we support each eligible voter’s ability to participate in a fair, easy, and secure voting process.”

Six Philadelphia law firms, some of which are very politically active, signed onto the statement: Ballard Spahr, Cozen O’Connor, Dechert, Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, Fox Rothschild, and Morgan Lewis.

Andy Levander, chair of Dechert’s policy committee, said it could be easy to dismiss a single company or chief executive’s statement as partisan. Banding together in a joint statement sends a stronger message, he said.

“It’s a message to our communities. It’s a message to the people we work with,” he said. “We want everybody to have a chance to vote.”

Such public statements are a way for companies to signal their positions or values to customers, workers, and business partners, said Hill, the Temple professor. If firms were strictly interested in changing laws, they would spend most of their time and money directly lobbying lawmakers, he said.

Josh Kopelman, a venture capitalist who chairs The Inquirer’s board — and is not involved in editorial decision-making — also signed the letter.

American Airlines, the dominant air carrier in Philadelphia and one of the city’s largest private employers, signed onto the statement.

Earlier this month, the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline expressed concern over Texas legislation containing “provisions that limit voting access.” “To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the company said.

Nine members of the faculty and staff at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School signed the statement individually. Wharton itself didn’t sign, with a spokesperson saying Wednesday, “We have no information on the statement.”

Corinne Low, an assistant professor of business economics and public policy, said she was contacted about the statement by a Wharton alum at eyeglass retailer Warby Parker, another signatory.

Restricting voting access, she said, “harkens back to that terrible, unjust time” when African Americans were denied the right to vote during the Jim Crow era.

“I am proud of the companies and other leaders who stood up for what was right and signed this statement,” Low said, “and I think those that didn’t sign spoke loudly, too.”