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Enterprise leaders marketing campaign behind the scenes following assaults by Republicans

Protesters protest inside the Capitol Building against House Bill 531 on March 8, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Megan Varner | Getty Images

Business leaders are now fighting behind the scenes against Republican-backed electoral laws, which they consider too restrictive after repeated attacks by GOP leaders and their well-funded allies.

Since the outcry earlier this year over the passing of the new electoral law in Georgia, which critics say is wrongly directed against minorities, many executives and companies are now voicing their concerns privately, according to several people who have been briefed on the matter. Some executives have said they are concerned that the laws may harm their employees.

Corporations like Coca-Cola and organizations like Major League Baseball protested Georgia law. GOP officials in other states, including Texas, have pushed laws that have been criticized by Democrats and suffrage activists.

Some people who spoke to CNBC declined to be featured in this article to avoid retaliation. Others declined to be named as these efforts are ongoing and details have not yet been released.

Executives seek to influence lawmakers at the state and federal levels, including advocating the democratically-backed John Lewis voting rights and For the People laws in Congress.

CNBC policy

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One of the state-level campaigns is to pressure the NCAA leaders to respond vigorously to the introduction of electoral laws in Texas, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter. Another feature is a legion of corporate attorneys who respond to Pennsylvania's electoral laws.

The shift to behind-the-scenes campaigns comes after top Republicans, including the leaders of Texas and Georgia, and Senate minority chairman Mitch McConnell of Kentucky beat up corporate leaders for speaking out against electoral laws.

"There's some real behind the scenes work to be found for companies that have decided, 'Hey, taking Republican leaders publicly is not the best tactic,' and that have decided to work behind the scenes with lobbyists Working together to get rid of some of those provisions is a better way, "Tom Rogers, former TiVo CEO and former NBC executive who helped found CNBC and MSNBC, said in an interview Thursday. Rogers said he contacted executives who were involved in the effort.

The behind-the-scenes effort also comes after hundreds of business leaders and companies signed a public statement opposing "discriminatory laws or measures that limit or prevent an elector from having an equal and fair opportunity to vote ".

The Brennan Center for Justice states that by March lawmakers had passed 361 bills with restrictive voting requirements in 47 states.

The new electoral law in Georgia, according to an analysis, provides stricter guidelines for acceptable voter identification, a limit on the number of dropboxes in certain counties and an effective ban on third groups who distribute water to people in line for the election.

James Quincey, CEO of Coca-Cola in Georgia, targeted the state's electoral law in an interview with CNBC. Quincey and Coca-Cola are targeted in an advertising campaign by groups like the conservative Outfit Consumers' Research.

American Airlines, headquartered in Texas, has spoken out against a bill that, according to the company, "contains provisions that restrict access to voting." Consumers' Research is also targeting the airline's CEO, Doug Parker, as part of their campaign.

Home State response

Privately, business leaders target specific laws in their home states, according to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a leadership expert and professor at Yale who organized virtual meetings with business leaders to decide on a response after Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp had signed his state's law.

"In the next phase the problems will be examined from state to state," said Sonnenfeld, describing the most recent discussions with executives. "The business community needs to focus on state-to-state efforts."

Some of the steps go beyond the broader public statements many companies have signed, Sonnenfeld and others said. In many cases, companies try to do a balancing act by responding to laws they consider restrictive and potentially unconstitutional while trying to assert themselves as impartial.

One such effort is for business leaders to pressure the heads of the NCAA, the national college sports organization, to get a response similar to what it received after North Carolina's transgender bathroom ban was passed in 2016, said one person familiar with the Lobbying push is familiar.

After that bill was passed, the NCAA moved at least seven college championship games from North Carolina and relocated them. The bill was later repealed, and the NCAA subsequently lifted its ban.

Now, says a person familiar with the lobbying efforts, business leaders opposed to the Texas voting proposals are urging the NCAA leadership to take a similar move in the Lone Star State if the bill becomes law.

Progress Texas group said the NCAA should consider withdrawing from their future basketball games in Texas.

An NCAA press representative responded to CNBC's request by referring to a statement they released by their board of governors in April.

"While the integrity of the elections is essential to the electoral process, equal opportunities for all Americans cannot be compromised in any way, and we wholeheartedly support efforts to assist everyone in the exercise of this fundamental right," the statement said in part .

Another effort in Texas stems from a letter signed by over 180 local business and community leaders and 50 companies including American Airlines, NBC News reported earlier this month. The letter urges all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and to oppose changes that would restrict voters' access to the ballot.

Although no specific bill was specifically mentioned in the letter, these company leaders have worked privately with Governor Greg Abbott and Governor Dan Patrick, both Republicans, and stressed that these bills could have a negative impact on company employees, said a person working with the range is familiar to CNBC.

Patrick said in April that he had heard from an executive at American Airlines who appeared to have told him that the company was breaking electoral law under a bill. In April, the Texas Tribune said the bill, if signed into law, would "restrict extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-through voting, and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively mail requests to voters, even if they do to qualify."

Corporate response, both private and public, appears to have made a difference in Texas. Local news channel KHOU reported earlier this month that the Texas House legislature passed a scaled-down version of one of the bills that included voting bills. It is now up for a vote in the Senate.

Sonnenfeld also pointed to Pennsylvania, where Brad Karp, attorney and chairman of legal giant Paul Weiss, organized a group of nearly 100 attorneys to respond to possible restrictive electoral laws in that state. Karp declined to comment on CNBC when asked about these efforts.

The Brennan Center lists a dozen Pennsylvania state bills that it claims limit voting. Pennsylvania has a Democratic governor, but Republicans control the legislature.

Organize future responses

While several companies in certain states are battling the various voting laws supported by the GOP, corporate support is also being sought for two different federal voting laws.

Business leaders are working with Michelle Obama-backed voter registration group When We All Vote and their allies, including some Time to Vote corporate members, to compile a statement in support of the For the People Act, according to those familiar with the movement.

Time to vote to promote itself as "an impartial effort for companies that want to contribute to the cultural change necessary to increase voter turnout in our country's elections". Over 700 companies have joined the organization, including Bank of America, Nike, Discovery, and ViacomCBS, according to Time to Vote's website.

The For the People Act was recently passed by the Democratic House and is under scrutiny in the equally divided Senate. Brennan Center experts say it would "curb electoral repression and make it easier for all Americans to register, vote and cast a vote. It would ban partisan walking in congressional districts."

A When We All Vote representative declined to comment.

Corporations are also trying to sign a letter to lawmakers in Congress that, according to someone directly involved in the planning, would support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. If introduced and later passed, the law would help limit election restrictions.

Both laws face great opportunities in the Senate.

Companies that have indicated their willingness to sign the letter in support of the voting rights law include payment company PayPal, tech giant Salesforce, and candy and pet food company Mars.

These companies have not returned requests for comments.

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