democracy is a work in progress

Sarah Bonk: Engaging Business for Stronger Democracy

2021-10-11T17:23:49-05:00
Sarah Bonk photo
Problem Addressed Voting Rights
Solution Launched Business for America to engage businesses in actively supporting the cause of voting rights and being responsible corporate citizens.
Location Washington, DC
Impact National

What she did

Sarah Bonk developed an intimate understanding of the relationship between business and politics through her first-hand experiences working in Washington, DC, in the corporate space, and in volunteerism. Her doer mentality drove her to create Business for America, understanding that there was a need for the business community to play an active role in the advancement of voting rights and in creating a better-functioning political system.

Her story

Sarah Bonk has volunteered a lot, and for various causes. She graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. in Public Policy and, in her words, has “always been about making the world a better place.” She is fascinated by policy, how to craft systems, and how to understand psychology and sociology to both improve society through government and make government function better.

Bonk began her career in public policy by interning with Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who at the time was a freshman congressman from Ohio. It didn’t take long for her to realize, however, that she didn’t want to be a part of the government, having witnessed first-hand how slowly the government moves.

“The idea of being into change and innovation did not gel at all with the idea of working for government,” she explained. She also resisted the vitriol and toxicity that existed in Congress even in the 90s — though perhaps less so than today — and that in her mind was a critical impediment to government functioning properly.

Instead, Bonk forged a 20-year career in the private sector, mostly at Apple, around design, technology, systems thinking, and leadership. She never planned to be a businessperson, but she discovered that it was something she was good at and she enjoyed the challenges.

During her time at Apple, where she rose to senior manager of design at Apple.com, Bonk started to think about taking time to volunteer again. She considered getting involved in climate change activism, as well as education and youth development programs, but she always circled back to the idea that there would be better outcomes on all of these fronts if the government did its job more efficiently.

“If we don’t fix democracy, we are not going to be able to fix any of these other problems,” she said.

Bonk then started pro bono consulting work for various “better government” groups, offering her organizational and design skills. She supported several initiatives led by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig, who has focused much of his reform activism on making elections better for voters. She also contributed to projects with the national anti-corruption organization RepresentUs and Bridge Alliance, a coalition group that has brought together dozens of organizations to promote a healthier democratic ecosystem.

These experiences showed her the range of people and organizations working to improve democracy. However, Bonk realized there were some pieces missing, a crucial one being the business community.

“You see how much societal change — progress on issues — involves engagement and the support of the corporate sector,” she said, “and so then the question was, how do you get the corporate sector involved?”

Around 2014, Bonk began to pitch the idea of bringing the business community into the better government movement. By 2017, she had left Apple and started Business for America.

Her timing was good. In 2016 few people were thinking about democracy and voting rights as a business issue. However, after Donald Trump was elected, Bonk saw that more people had become concerned about trends that were decades in the making.

“It really brought things to a point for more people to think like, ‘Wow, with the polarization in our society, or populism and trends toward authoritarianism globally, what does it all mean and what do we do about it?’” She remarked.

Building Business Support for Voting Rights

Four years later, with the pandemic raging and the president leading attacks on the integrity of the elections, companies stepped up their support for civic engagement and voter access on a substantial scale. Business for America did its part to encourage this increased activity.

Bonk penned an op-ed in 2020 with Warby Parker co-founders Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilbo, in which they called on all business leaders to “take action to safeguard the democratic process” by ensuring that their employees were able to exercise their right to vote, and do so in a safe manner.

One of their calls to action was for companies to sign on to the Time to Vote campaign, a business-led coalition committed to fostering work environments in which their employees did not feel like they had to choose between their paycheck and their right to vote. One way of doing this was by offering paid time off to exercise this right.

“We have a responsibility to preserve the system of democratic governance that allowed us to dream big and start our own enterprises in this country,” wrote Bonk, Blumenthal, and Gilbo. “A stable democracy benefits employees, customers, business and society.”

Almost 2,000 companies now support the Time to Vote campaign, up from the 400 companies that joined when it initially launched in 2018. Members include industry giants like Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Dell Technologies, Macy’s, Nike, SAP, Target, Qualcomm Incorporated, VISA, and many more.

Getting so many companies to make voting rights a high priority was a start, but for Bonk the question in front of Business for America and the business community at large is what that engagement will look like over the long haul.

“It is about getting the economic engine of the country to understand that the health of democracy is in their long-term and self-interest,” she said. She added that this issue ties directly into the strength of “the business climate, our economic competitiveness, and their bottom line.”

Around the same time that the op-ed appeared, a new challenge had emerged that threatened the foundations of our democracy. President Trump’s false claims during the presidential campaign last year and after the November election of widespread voter fraud and illegitimate voting by mail laid the groundwork for a larger assault on voting rights. That assault took the form of hundreds of proposed laws in almost every state to restrict voter access.

As these laws advanced in state legislatures, the business community responded with calls on states like Iowa, Georgia, and others to stop promoting changes that would make it harder for people to vote. The response from supporters of the new legislation was swift and clear.

US Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said it was “stupid” for businesses to get involved in the voting rights fight, and warned corporations to “stay out of politics.”

Bonk notes that businesses that weighed in on the legislation were hammered by some voting rights advocates for not getting involved sooner or not doing enough. Then, on the other side, they were slammed by Republican politicians for objecting to election changes that elected officials argued were about election integrity.

The perception among many companies, according to Bonk, is that getting involved in any policy discussion means wedging themselves into a hyper-polarized “either/or” debate over voting rights vs election security, when the issue is not that cut-and-dry.

Bonk looks at SB 202 in Georgia, which got tremendous pushback from some corporations, as an example of this dilemma. She believes the law has a number of problematic issues, but it also includes reasonable changes and adjustments to state elections that even voting rights groups agree with.

“It is hard to take a law like that and say it is 100% Jim Crow, evil, bad, and targeting people of color,” she said. “It’s a lot greyer than that, which makes it harder for companies to know what they should do.”

Bonk believes a clear message from businesses that “every American must have fair and equal access to vote” while also maintaining election security and integrity, and without placing unnecessary barriers to voter access, would help push the needle forward. She says we need to drop the “either/or” mindset and forge bipartisan consensus to “ensure elections are secure and accessible.”

Moving The Needle on Voting Rights

Business for America supports restoring federal oversight and voting protections stripped from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder (2013).

This summer, it helped recruit more than 160 diverse businesses, including Google, Pepsi, and Vail Resorts to form Business for Voting Rights and express their support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. In a letter sent to Congress in July, the group pointed out that the proposed act would effectively revitalize the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was voted on and repeatedly reauthorized in the decades since with overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 required some states to get permission from the Department of Justice to change their election laws; a specific formula was to be used to identify which jurisdictions were covered by the law. The key feature of the John Lewis bill updates that formula in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby.

Excerpts from the Business Letter to Congress

“Despite decades of progress, impediments to exercising the right to vote persist in many states, especially for communities of color. We need federal protections to safeguard this fundamental right for all Americans.”

“The Voting Rights Act of 1965, long considered the crown jewel of civil rights legislation, contained provisions that prevented the adoption of discriminatory rules that limited access to voting in states with histories of voting discrimination. Those provisions were reauthorized four times by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the US Congress, and every time the VRA has been reauthorized it has been signed into law by a Republican president. Upon signing the 1982 reauthorization into law, President Reagan said that “Citizens must have complete confidence in the sanctity of their right to vote, and that’s what this legislation is all about. It provides confidence that constitutional guarantees are being upheld and that no vote counts more than another.”

Bonk believes the John Lewis bill has the potential to move the conversation on voting rights beyond the “either/or” framework. She points to the long history of bipartisan support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) that she says is crucial to garnering business support for the John Lewis bill. The VRA was reauthorized in Congress four times, most recently in 2006, by members of both parties. Each reauthorization was also signed by a Republican president: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was initially introduced in 2019, also had US Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as one of its co-sponsors. Murkowski indicated she would continue to support this bill once it was re-introduced.

The business letter does not explicitly call out Republican-controlled states that have passed laws that make it harder to vote. Its focus is on the fact that what matters to companies across the country is the US political system removing any inequities in the electoral system and making it easy for all eligible citizens to participate in the democratic process.

Bonk says, “This isn’t a left-right issue. [All] Americans need to be involved in determining the future of the country, period.”

How Businesses Can Get Involved

Earlier this summer, Forbes published an article, “Five Ways Businesses Can Help Fight Voter Suppression And Build Trust In Our Democracy”, by Rhett Buttle, who writes on the relationship between business, policy, and politics. In the article, he explains that “not only is [voter] suppression bad for democracy, this type of thinking and the ill will it sews has the potential to destabilize our economy.”

So, in addition to signing on to Business for Voting Rights, if you run a small or large business, follow the five steps recommended by Buttle.

Written by Shawn Griffiths

Published on Aug 31, 2021

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Sources

Sarah Bonk, interview with Shawn Griffiths, May 25, 2021

Sarah Bonk, Neil Blumenthal, and Dave Gilbo, “Founders of Warby Parker and Business for America: Give your employees paid time off to vote”, CNN Business, Aug 16, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/16/perspectives/warby-parker-business-for-america-vote/index.html, accessed Jul 21, 2021

Time to Vote, “Time to Vote Movement Gains Unprecedented Momentum Ahead of 2020 U.S. Election”, Press Release, Aug 27, 2020, https://www.maketimetovote.org/pages/press-release, accessed Jul 21, 2020

Tina Casey, “U.S. Business Leaders Defend Voting Rights”, Triple Pundit, Aug 19, 2020, https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2020/business-leaders-voting-rights/121246, accessed Jul 21, 2020

Brennan Center for Justice, “Voting Laws Roundup: May 2021”, May 28, 2021, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-may-2021/, accessed Ju; 21, 2021

Allan Smith and Frank Thorp V, “McConnell warns corporate America to ‘stay out of politics’ — but says donations are OK”, NBC News, Apr 6, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/mcconnell-warns-corporate-america-stay-out-politics-says-donations-are-n1263173, accessed Jul 21, 2021

“Business Letter to Congress in Support of Voting Rights”, Business for Voting Rights, https://www.businessforvotingrights.com/letter-to-congress, accessed Jul 21, 2021

Press release, “Murkowski Outlines Concerns on Election Overhaul Bill”, Office of Senator Lisa Murkowski, Jun 23, 2021, https://www.murkowski.senate.gov/press/release/murkowski-outlines-concerns-on-election-overhaul-bill, accessed Jul 26, 2021

Shawn Griffiths and George Linzer, “​​Georgia’s New Voting Law: Mostly A Step Backward”, The American Leader, Apr 27, 2021, https://theamericanleader.org/progress-update/georgias-new-voting-law-mostly-a-step-backward/, accessed Jul 21, 2021

John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Congress.gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/4263, accessed Jul 21, 2021

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