Big corporations that claim to support voting rights are still funding right-wing state AGs

Coke, GM, AT&T pay "lip service" to voting rights while funding GOP vote-suppression forces, says watchdog group

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published October 19, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

Major corporations that have publicly touted their support for voting rights amid the nationwide Republican crackdown on ballot access are still funding many Republican state attorneys general who are working to scuttle federal voting rights legislation.

Leaders of companies like General Motors, Coca-Cola and Home Depot denounced the Republican onslaught of voting restrictions in states like Georgia earlier this year. But those companies and others have kept on funding Republican attorneys general who urged congressional leaders to block the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a proposed law that would restore a section of the Voting Rights Act — recently gutted by the Supreme Court — requiring states with a history of racial discrimination to pre-clear new voting changes with the Justice Department.

That also came after an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association sent robocalls on Jan. 5 of this year, urging supporters to come to Washington to "fight" Congress in support of former President Donald Trump's election lies. The following day, of course, pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. The group also received $150,000 from a major Republican donor who helped fund the "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the riot.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita led 22 other Republican attorneys general last month in condemning the John Lewis Voting Rights bill, claiming it "would allow the United States Department of Justice to usurp the authority states rightly possess over their own elections, essentially federalizing the election system."

"This legislation is a misguided, clumsy, and heavy-handed effort to circumvent Supreme Court decisions, state sovereignty, and the will of the people," the group said in a letter to congressional leaders, claiming that states responding to Republican concerns about election integrity would "inevitably be targeted by the Department of Justice leading to more confusion, litigation, and concerns over the validity of elections going forward."

Two of Rokita's top corporate sponsors have been adamant publicly about supporting voting rights. Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, which donated $5,000 to Rokita and $75,000 to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, another signatory, last year launched a "Brew Democracy" initiative aimed to promote voting participation, claiming it was "committed to uniting our communities, strengthening our democracy and encouraging even greater participation in the political process." General Motors, which also gave $5,000 to Rokita, signed a statement earlier this year criticizing Georgia Republicans for passing a law that would "reduce participation in elections — particularly among historically disenfranchised communities."

Georgia is just one of 19 Republican-led states that have already enacted at least 33 new laws that will "make it harder for Americans to vote," according to the Brennan Center for Justice, including laws "making mail voting and early voting more difficult, imposing harsher voter ID requirements, and making faulty voter purges more likely."

Other Republican attorneys general who signed the letter have also received big donations from companies touting their voting rights support, according to data compiled in a new report by the progressive government watchdog group Accountable.US, shared with Salon this week.

"With the freedom to vote under attack across the country and targeted at communities of color and people with disabilities, corporations — especially those claiming to value democracy — need to put their money where their mouths are," Kyle Herrig, the group's president, said in a statement. "Instead, many big companies with household names are trying to have it both ways, telling their customers, shareholders and employees that they embrace voting rights while they fund the campaigns of politicians trying to block this fundamental right from vulnerable Americans."

To make matters even more confusing, some of the big corporate donors involved have explicitly backed the John Lewis bill. Facebook, which gave nearly $13,000 to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and $4,000 to South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, was among more than 240 companies to sign a statement calling on Congress to "restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act, removing barriers to voting and building the truly representative 21st century democracy our country deserves."

"The undersigned group of U.S. employers urges Congress to address these problems through legislation amending the Voting Rights Act of 1965," the statement says. "Last Congress, the House of Representatives passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. We support the ongoing work of both the House and the Senate to enact legislation amending the Voting Rights Act this Congress."

The law firm Cozen O'Connor, which gave $10,100 to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, previously touted its work alongside the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a court case that found that Louisiana violated the Voting Rights Act.

Coca-Cola, which is headquartered in Atlanta and was one of the top companies criticizing Georgia's voting law as "unacceptable" and vowing to advocate for voting protections, also donated more than $13,000 to Carr. Home Depot, which issued a statement opposing the Georgia law, also gave Carr more than $13,000. The retail giant also donated more than $16,000 to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, another signatory.

AT&T responded to the backlash over the Georgia law by issuing a statement in support of voting rights. "We believe the right to vote is sacred and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections," said CEO John Stankey. But the company has been a top funder of right-wing Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, donating more than $108,000 to his campaigns. Paxton was one of the signatories of the letter and led a doomed lawsuit last winter asking the Supreme Court to throw out the election results in four states Trump lost despite no evidence of significant or widespread fraud.

"Corporations that pay lip service and play both sides during this critical fight are giving a free pass to politicians hellbent on disenfranchising voters — and that says everything about a company's true values," Herrig said.

The House in August voted 219-212 along party lines to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Senate Democrats formally introduced the bill earlier this month but the bill is expected to face a Republican filibuster. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is the only Republican who has expressed support for the bill, and at least nine more GOP votes would be required to break the filibuster.

"Voting rights should never be a partisan issue, and for decades it wasn't," Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the nonpartisan good-government group Common Cause, said in a statement. "Many current GOP senators have backed strong voting rights protections in the past. In fact, 10 current Republican senators voted for the Voting Rights Act reauthorization when it passed the Senate 98-0 in 2006, only one week after it was passed by the House. If 10 Senate Republicans will not support this bill, then Senate Democrats must reform the filibuster."

Republicans earlier this year filibustered the For the People Act, a sweeping Democratic proposal aimed at countering the slew of new voting restrictions in GOP-led states. The two doomed bills have ramped up pressure on "centrist" Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to agree to reform the filibuster rule.

Manchin, who has so far ruled out any changes to the filibuster, negotiated a compromise bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, in hopes of winning over enough Republicans to at least make a floor vote possible. The Senate this week is expected to vote on the bill, which includes provisions to codify voter protections, ban the improper removal of local election officials, set stricter election administration standards, expand automatic voter registration and mail voting and ban partisan gerrymandering. To appease Republicans, it would also create a national voter ID requirement and scale back proposals in the For the People Act requiring states to provide mail-in ballot applications to all voters, banning voter list purges, creating independent redistricting commissions and overhauling the Federal Election Commission.

Yet despite Manchin's attempt at compromise, not a single Senate Republican has agreed to back his legislation either.

"The Freedom to Vote Act went through endless debate and compromises, but even a compromise bill won't win 60 votes in our broken Senate," said Stephany Spaulding, a spokesperson for Just Democracy, a coalition of racial and social justice groups, in a statement. 

"Republicans are committed to using every tool to prevent Black and brown voters from accessing the ballot box, and the Jim Crow filibuster is the ultimate weapon to block progress," Spaulding continued. "Sen. Manchin searched for 10 Republicans to support voting rights legislation, but Republican senators willing to break with Sen. [Mitch] McConnell and stand on the right side of history simply don't exist. Senate Democrats can no longer divorce the filibuster from the promises and issues they ran on — they must act with urgency to get rid of the filibuster."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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