Several of Minnesota's biggest companies are taking strong stands in favor of voting rights as the state and country wrestle with the issue of new laws adding requirements for residents to vote.
They are joining corporations across the country speaking out — most in general terms — as measures have been introduced or passed in 47 states, including Minnesota. The moves come after a year of increased public discourse by companies, from get-out-the-vote messages to equity pledges after the death of George Floyd in police custody, and condemnation of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Representative of Minnesota companies' statements is this one placed on LinkedIn by Medtronic Chief Executive Geoff Martha.
"At Medtronic, we believe that the right to vote — and equal access to exercising that right — are fundamental to America as a free and democratic society," Martha wrote. "We stand against any effort to restrict this right, including efforts that impact and disadvantage historically underrepresented communities anywhere in the United States."
Medtronic, like other Minnesota companies such as Best Buy, Target and Deluxe Corp., offer time off for employees to vote and offer nonpartisan voting information.
Statements from the state's publicly traded corporations did not deal with specific bills such as one passed by a Republican-run Minnesota Senate committee last week that would put new restrictions on same-day voter registration, or Georgia laws changing rules for absentee ballots and limiting ballot drop boxes.
Such sentiments come even as businesses in Georgia, including Delta Air Lines, face retaliation from angry Republicans. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that corporations should not be taking a stand on those issues.
Worldwide agricultural conglomerate Cargill, one of Minnesota's best-known companies and one of the largest privately held businesses, offered a broad condemnation of new voting restrictions.
"We are opposed to any attempts to restrict eligible Americans' access to the polls or create barriers that discriminate and further silence the voices that need to be represented, especially Black Americans," the company said in a statement. "We will always advocate for equity and human dignity for our employees in each state, including voting rights, so all may be fairly heard."
C.H. Robinson and 3M, whose CEOs belong to a powerful executive collective, the Business Roundtable, cited the group's warning against voter suppression.
"Over the course of our nation's history, the right to vote was hard fought for so many Americans, particularly women and people of color," the Roundtable said. "We call on elected officials across the country to advance voting rights by continuing efforts to provide greater access to voting and encourage broad voter participation."
Brian Richter, a specialist in corporate social responsibility who teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, sees such sweeping statements as the continuation of new era of "CEO activism" that began with corporate pushback on laws discriminating against lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people.
At the same time, Richter acknowledged, political stands will always be riskier to businesses than policy positions.
The current battle focuses on minority voting rights. That makes new laws a civil rights issue, Richter said. Knowing that minorities are a growing consumer sector and the fact that Democrats now control both chambers of Congress and the White House blunts some risks of taking a political stand, Richter said.
Another question executives must consider in the current controversy is what principles they want associated with their brand. Diversity, equity and inclusion have become important parts of current U.S. business models as the nation's demographics change, said Akshay Rao, a business professor specializing in branding at the University of Minnesota.
Another issue for businesses, especially in Minnesota, is the videotaped death of Floyd, Rao said. Fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for murder in the killing.
"This is a peculiar time in history that allows a brand to take a principled position and offer evidence to support it," Rao said.
His advice to CEOs, especially in Minnesota, is "to stand up and be counted."
Best Buy issued a statement urging legislators to "vote no" on laws that "make it more difficult for eligible Americans to cast a ballot."
The role of business in supporting voting rights comes as Congress considers the most extensive federal voting rights bill in 50 years. The For the People Act passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives with no Republican support. It makes permanent many of the temporary mail-in voting and early-voting measures introduced in the 2020 election because of the pandemic. It also prohibits making voters show IDs at the polls and adds national requirements that make it easy to vote.
The measure now faces a battle in the equally divided Senate. The standoff continues as hundreds of state voting-restriction laws make their way through Republican-controlled Legislatures.
The majority of company comments regarding voting rights came after a group of Black executives publicly took a stand on the new Georgia laws and those in the pipeline, including in Texas.
The group included former American Express CEO Ken Chenault, who told the New York Times that "there is no middle ground. You are either for more people voting or you want to suppress the vote."
Last year Deluxe Corp., which is headquartered in Minnesota, announced it is building a financial-technology center near Atlanta.
In an e-mail statement, a Deluxe spokesperson told the Star Tribune that the company believes "elections should be fair, broadly accessible and secure in every geography where we live and work around the world."
Xcel issued a similar statement: "We support laws in our states that assure broad access to the ballot and free and fair elections consistent with the nation's democratic values."
Target Corp. CEO Brian Cornell signed a statement by the Civic Alliance, a group of more than 200 companies including Under Armour, H&M, Levi's and REI, which read in part: "Our elections are not improved when lawmakers impose barriers that result in longer lines at the polls or that reduce access to secure ballot drop boxes. There are hundreds of bills threatening to make voting more difficult in dozens of states nationwide."
Target individually released a statement decrying "any actions that create barriers to voting, results in unequal access to the ballot box or has a disproportionate impact" on Black people, Indigenous people or other people of color.
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