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Faculty Viewpoints

Business Leaders Mobilize for a Fair Vote

As the U.S. approaches a divisive election, writes Yale SOM leadership expert Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, business leaders are calling for patience while ballots are counted and a peaceful transfer of power.

Ballots in a sorting machine at the Santa Clara County registrar of voters office in October 2020. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Ballots in a sorting machine at the Santa Clara County registrar of voters office in October 2020. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

This commentary was originally published in Fortune.

U.S. business leaders mobilized this month in support of democracy, with 3,000 employers providing over a million workers with paid time off to vote and encouraging hundreds of thousands of their workers to assist often-elderly poll workers as volunteers. And this week, those leaders have mobilized another historic initiative to help bring needed calm to next week’s Election Day aftermath.

A new national survey from Morning Consult revealed that 64% of U.S. adults, across party lines, are worried about possible intervention of the Supreme Court in determining a winner of next week’s presidential Election. Furthermore, half of voters believe that President Trump will prematurely declare himself the winner before the ballots are fully counted, and a third worry Vice President Biden will prematurely declare victory.

Given the complexity surrounding the early voting surge, mail-in ballot delays, and party imbalances among those who vote in person, a so-called Red Mirage or Blue Mirage of misleading early results is anticipated in fear, with the potential to create conflict before all ballots are tallied. A new overnight national survey by Morning Consult found that 72% of American adults believe business leaders have “an important role restoring public harmony following the November 3 election.”

Unease over what might happen is leading big companies to take dramatic action. Walmart, for example, has temporarily removed all firearms and ammunition displays in its stores because of the potential for social unrest, the company said on Thursday.

This week, the nation’s most powerful business lobbyists joined forces to urge patience over the ballot counting following Election Day. The Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and other major business groups joined in a broad coalition to state: “This election, tens of millions of Americans are expected to vote by mail, and it may be days or even weeks until the outcome is settled. Even under normal circumstances, it can take time to finalize results. We urge all Americans to support the process set out in our federal and state laws and to remain confident in our country’s long tradition of peaceful and fair elections.”

Days earlier, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon had declared: “The peaceful and stable transition of power―whether it is to the second administration of a president or a new one―is a hallmark of America's 244-year history as an independent nation."

These statements are neither cliched “apple pie” endorsements of democracy nor catering to voter paranoia. They’re a response to a genuine threat. The business lobbyist coalition spoke just hours after President Trump proclaimed that it would be “totally inappropriate” if ballots continued to be tallied after November 3. Justice Brett Kavanaugh seemed to support Trump’s stance in his concurring opinion in a Supreme Court ruling later that same day, regarding Wisconsin ballot counting. Kavanaugh argued that it was appropriate to restrict the receipt of late-arriving ballots “to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after Election Day and potentially flip the results of an election.”

The disparate voices of American business have never spoken with more clarity and unity as they have lately in support of progressive public policies, even when that has meant clashing with the Trump administration.

Of course, the nation has regularly counted late mail-in ballots, including military ballots and provisional ballots. And this year’s COVID-related mail-in surge and Postal Service cutbacks led the USPS to warn of Election Day ballot delays three months ago, meaning there are likely to be far more late ballots than usual.

The disparate voices of American business have never spoken with more clarity and unity as they have lately in supportive of progressive public policies on environmental protection, gun control, immigration, trade, racial justice, and public health and safety, even when that has meant clashing with the Trump administration. The Edelman Trust barometer continues to show CEOs to be one of the most trusted pillars of society. The impact of their collective voices can be pivotal.

This week, Merck CEO Ken Frazier explained his cohort's call to action in an appearance on CNBC:

“We have to realize that this is an election being conducted in the midst of a public-health crisis. And so tens of millions of people are voting in a different way in this election—through the mail. What we have to do in the business community, as well as the media and everyone privileged to hold a position of public trust and influence is to encourage people to vote but also to encourage them to respect the integrity and the legitimacy of the actual process. It is very likely we will not know the outcome in some states on election night. So it’s important to encourage people to have the patience, civility, and restraint to actually wait for the outcome of the election and to trust the process.”

In a poignant coincidence, it was Frazier who presented civil rights legend and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young with an award at the Yale CEO Summit, in December 2018. There, Young explained that his own successes in voting-rights battles between 1954 and 1963 were anchored in part on the voluntary support of Southern business in advance of the Voting Rights Act. He went on to say:

“Believe it or not, I almost have more faith in business than I have in the church, politics, or anything else I do. And the reason is there is more freedom and more courage in our free enterprise system.”

Ken Frazier reminds us that Andrew Young and the rest of us can still count on business leaders to seek a fair election where every vote is counted.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints