Five ways corporate America can help at the ballot box

Five ways corporate America can help at the ballot box
© Getty Images

Among the many novelties of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE’s presidency — including, most recently, the politicization of the Department of Justice and the use of anonymous federal agents to crack down on protests with oft-unprovoked violence — is his relationship with corporate America.  

America’s political and economic history has long been marked by a tug-of-war between government control and corporate freedom. From First Amendment rights to the use of privatized military forces on the battlefield, scholars have debated whether — and to what extent — corporate hunger for wealth should be confined, and whether the public interest favors increased government intervention in the markets. 

But with Trump in the White House, corporate America is increasingly coming to the rescue as a countervailing regulatory force on a number of fronts. It’s next task should be saving the fall election.

ADVERTISEMENT

Most people think of government as a monolith with clearly-defined boundaries. But the Constitution draws no red lines between public and private conduct. So when the government outsources core functions to private contractors, for example, the question of incentives looms large: Does corporate America’s steely focus on profit margins hurt or help the public interest? Does the government need to do more to protect consumers or simply get out of the way?

Of course, the last economic meltdown of similar magnitude to the current COVID-19 recession was the Great Depression — which was triggered, in part, by a grossly overvalued and unregulated stock market. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal repudiated fealty to an unregulated economy and expanded the size and scope of the federal government. 

These days, by any reasonable measure, the government is — again — not doing enough to evade catastrophe. But unlike the response under FDR, corporate America has stepped in to regulate itself. 

Consider that, until recently, Trump refused to endorse mask-wearing that helps stall the spread of the coronavirus, which has already killed nearly 150,000 Americans. Big national chains like Walmart, Kroger, Kohl’s, Target, CVS and Walgreens stepped up to enact policies requiring customers to wear masks when entering their stores. Walmart has stationed what it calls “health ambassadors” at entrances to remind shoppers of the policy, which implements guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the Trump administration has repeatedly criticized.

Like no president ever before, Trump has embraced social media to communicate with his base, blast his critics, fire appointees and even announce policy decisions before they’re vetted inside the federal government. Yet over the past few months, social media platforms have pushed back on his disinformation. Twitter has hidden Trump’s tweets for “glorifying violence” and for lying about the legitimacy of mail-in voting. Although Trump retaliated with an executive order threatening online speech rights, other social media companies have followed Twitter’s lead. Snapchat announced it would stop promoting the Trump campaign’s account on its “Discover” tab, and Reddit quarantined a forum of roughly 750,000 Trump supporters for promoting violence.

ADVERTISEMENT


To be sure, with the economy in tatters, corporate profiteers could be orchestrating these maneuvers to serve their bottom lines. But the purity of the motivation behind self-regulation is beside the point. The country is in a meltdown, cascading toward financial ruin, widespread hunger and homelessness, overburdened hospitals, mass casualties, a crisis in education and global isolationism — not to mention authoritarianism. None of this benefits corporate America. The only feasible remedy derives from the ballot box. But as the virus rages between now and November, our broken system of government is not going to rescue the electoral process. Corporate America needs to provide a lifeline — and soon.

Here’s how:

1) Corporations and private donors should devote financial resources to ensuring that polling sites open in November are staffed fully and safely, with protective equipment for workers. This takes money. Short of formally partnering with state and local election officials, sponsors could show up at polling sites with COVID-19 safety supplies, such as masks and hand sanitizer, in addition to water, snacks, portable toilets, and even entertainment so people can comfortably remain in lines that will likely be longer than usual. 

2) Private sponsors should provide shuttles to ferry voters to available polling sites in a manner that is safe and secure. Traditional polling places will be closed in November, many in low-income communities where people have less access to private cars for transportation. Ride-hailing companies should be commissioned en masse to pick up voters and bring them to and from polling locations (Lyft is already offering freebies and discounts, and Uber has a promotional coupon on its site). Not only does this foster democracy, but it puts money in some pockets of the 21 million unemployed Americans who are suffering from the COVID-19-related shutdowns.

3) The private sector should immediately donate money to the states for much-needed equipment for processing ballots by mail. That means ordering and printing special paper ballots, envelopes and scanners, purchasing secure drop-off boxes for ballots — a method of voting that avoids U.S. Postal Service mishaps and delays — and funding return postage for voters who choose to use the U.S. mail. Some private groups are already making donations directly to state and local officials “to set up ballot drop boxes, help voters file absentee ballot requests and expand in-person early voting.”

4) Corporations should give their employees a paid day off in order to vote in the general election. Companies like PayPal and Coca-Cola have already joined forces with over 550 companies through the non-partisan “Time to Vote” initiative, in which employers commit to ensuring that employees’ work schedules allow them to vote. State and local election officials also need to hire and train seasonal poll workers, who tend to be over 60 and thus more susceptible to the coronavirus. Corporations should supplement their workers’ income to enable them to serve on the frontlines of democracy this fall, as well.

5) Corporations should devote a portion of their advertising budgets to brand voting itself and educate the nearly 50 percent of eligible voters who don’t exercise their right to vote about the importance of voting to their own lives and the lives of their children. The under-18 crowd cannot cast votes for their own futures, which are now clouded in darkness. Today’s kids are tomorrow’s consumers, after all.

Kimberly Wehle is a professor at University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the books "How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” and “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter @kimwehle.