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Faculty Viewpoints

CEOs Urge Respect for Election Integrity

On November 6, corporate leaders gathered on short notice to discuss the aftermath of the election. In a conversation led by Yale SOM’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, they agreed on the importance of a smooth transition process and encouraged GOP leaders to endorse the integrity of the election.

President-Elect Joe Biden speaks to the media on November 9, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

President-Elect Joe Biden speaks to the media on November 9, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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

This commentary originally appeared in Chief Executive.

This year’s voter participation level shattered records, with each candidate receiving more votes than any other candidate in history. However, as the counting continued, a shadow was cast over this process. During President Trump’s news conference from the White House Press Briefing Room Thursday night, he asserted that he had won the election and made claims of election fraud which Brett Baier and John Roberts of Fox News were quick to label as unfounded while the broadcast networks of ABC, NBC, and CBS cut away from President mid-sentence.

These statements were quickly followed by condemnations from such leaders as Trump advisor Chris Christie GOP Senator Mitt Romney; former GOP Senator Rick Santorum, GOP Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland and other party leaders.

Immediately following President Trump’s false assertion of victory, I heard from CEOs of 30 of the top 100 U.S. corporations. Alarmed by what they heard, they were eager to meet on a confidential basis to exchange their concerns. Thus with only 10 hours overnight notice, they assembled for an urgent 7 a.m. Zoom call to share observations and talk about what possible roles they might play in encouraging a smooth transfer of power.

Yale political historian Tim Snyder, author of On Tyranny, opened the discussion. “What is happening in the U.S. now may be shocking to us, but this is not so unusual in historical terms,” he said. “Democracy is almost always overthrown from the inside and not from the outside. An election is very often the trigger. Democracy is precisely about institutions that allow us to handle change, that build in flexibility. The opposite of democracy is emergency politics, when a head of state or head of government tries to freeze everything and claim an emergency to justify breaking the rules.

“To defeat a coup d’etat, the early response of thought leaders, including of business leaders, is very important. Even if you think what Mr. Trump is doing is not going to work, it is very important not to just wait around to see how others respond.”

“A speech like Mr. Trump gave last night was totally predictable,” he added. “The name we give to such action—when a leader claims powers that do not actually belong to them and tries to change the form of the state—is a coup d’etat. To defeat a coup d’etat, the early response of thought leaders, including of business leaders, is very important. Even if you think what Mr. Trump is doing is not going to work, it is very important not to just wait around to see how others respond. The way we respond to the politics of exception is important not only to the moment but to the transition.”

Various experts in the room, from constitutional law scholars to PR experts and media barons, agreed with the above. However, a prominent financier felt that the language was overblown and countered these assertions suggesting that the president, like any citizen, was still entitled to freedom of expression to voice a grievance, as well as due process with access to courts to adjudicate that grievance. One CEO asked if others did not find it strange that some elections were called by the media with 40% of the vote and others delayed calls with over 90% of the votes in, just as they were suddenly being flooded by ballots favoring Vice President Biden.

Several CEOs explained that the projections were delayed when the votes were very close and that Trump had discouraged his backers from using the mail-in ballots, which were typically counted later in the process, while Biden and the Democrats encouraged the use of mail-in ballots, thus explaining the pattern. Pennsylvanians in the room further countered that state’s own GOP-dominated legislature uniquely blocked the processing of mailed in ballots until Election Day thus making it impossible to get a running start.

The group also reflected upon posted statements of several of their peers the prior day such as that by Jamie Dimon: “While strong opinions and tremendous passion characterized this U.S. election, it is the responsibility of each of us to respect the democratic process, and ultimately, the outcome,” he said. “We must have faith in our electoral and judicial systems and have the patience and fortitude to await the final determination. Once a final outcome is determined, together we must move forward to address our nation’s challenges.”

And David Solomon of Goldman Sachs: “I know that many of our people are anxious for the election result,” said and that everyone in the country, and frankly, everyone around the world, is craving clarity. That being said, as hard as it is, we knew that because of the epidemic, this election, like the months leading up to it, would be different than anything we have witnessed before, and that we would have to allow the time for the democratic process to unfold.”

As well as comments by Merck CEO Ken Frazier: 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.”

The group formed a strong consensus around the idea that President Trump was entitled to pursue legal redress if he had evidence to support his charges, but that no one has seen such evidence. They agreed that their prompt congratulations of the then-likely winner, Joe Biden, as president-elect would come immediately and that they would encourage the normal smooth transition process. They agreed to encourage GOP leaders to endorse the integrity of the election.

The very next day, moments after Biden was declared the winner by all media outlets, the Business Roundtable released the following statement: “Business Roundtable congratulates President-elect Biden on his election as 46th President of the United States. We also congratulate Vice President-elect Harris on her historic accomplishment as the first woman, Black woman and person of South Asian descent to be elected Vice President of the United States…. While we respect the Trump campaign’s right to seek recounts, to call for investigation of alleged voting irregularities where evidence exists and to exhaust legitimate legal remedies, there is no indication that any of these would change the outcome.”

This message was matched by immediate parallel statements from other major industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. Within hours, heads of state from around the world as well as past U.S. presidents added their congratulations and their confirmation of a fair and free election process.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush offered this confirmation of the process yet a day later: “I just talked to the president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden. I extended my warm congratulations and thanked him for the patriotic message he delivered last night. I also called Kamala Harris to congratulate her on her historic election to the vice presidency. Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man, who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country. The president-elect reiterated that while he ran as a Democrat, he will govern for all Americans. I offered him the same thing I offered Presidents Trump and Obama: my prayers for his success, and my pledge to help in any way I can…. The American people can have confidence that this election was fundamentally fair, its integrity will be upheld, and its outcome is clear.”

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal encouraged President Trump to acknowledge his seven cases of election fraud tossed out of court, stating: “Mr. Trump’s legacy will be diminished greatly if his final act is a bitter refusal to accept a legitimate defeat. Republican officials will turn away, and eventually so will the American public that wants to see the election resolved.”

The reassuring voices of U.S. top leaders across parties and across sectors helped to confirm that American democracy is alive and well, as an outgoing president comes to terms with loss and any channels for legal appeal, while a new president prepares to take charge following an historic election.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints