Cummins CEO criticizes bills restricting voting access

Cummins Chairman and CEO Tom Linebarger is criticizing what he described as an “epidemic” of bills proposed in state legislatures across the country that would restrict voting access and disproportionately impact Black and brown communities.

“We’re just feeling like it’s kind of an epidemic of finding ways to limit access or reduce access or reduce voting rights,” Linebarger said in a telephone interview. “In our opinion, voting rights are fundamental to our democracy, and it’s really a civil rights issue.”

Linebarger is encouraging businesses in every state to defend voting rights and do their part to let state legislators know restricting voting access is a civil rights issue, saying it shouldn’t take a “Herculean effort” to cast a ballot in the United States.

Cummins, which is headquartered in Columbus and employs around 8,000 people in the area, including Seymour, is actively tracking legislation across the country that would make changes to election rules, including in Indiana, company officials said.

Linebarger wouldn’t comment on any specific bills, but his remarks came as public opposition from the ranks of big corporations grows over sweeping elections changes that have been proposed or enacted in at least 40 states, most notably in Georgia and Texas.

On Friday, Linebarger joined a growing chorus of business leaders across the country to issue statements on voting rights, calling efforts to restrict voting access “discriminatory, largely aimed at our Black and brown citizens and have no place in the inclusive communities we are committed to building.”

Similar statements have been made by some of the most prominent corporate leaders in the United States — including the CEOs of Apple, Delta Airlines, Dell, Coca-Cola and dozens of others — who are publicly voicing opposition to a wave of GOP-sponsored election bills introduced in states across the country after former President Donald Trump made repeated false claims about election fraud.

Eli Lilly officials criticized an Indiana proposal currently under consideration by the state legislature that the company maintains will make mail-in voting more difficult by requiring voters to submit identification numbers with their ballot applications.

Stephen Fry, Eli Lilly’s senior vice president for human resources and diversity, told a legislative committee Tuesday in Indianapolis that the bill wasn’t needed and that state officials acted correctly to allow no-excuse mail-in voting for the spring 2020 primary because of COVID-19 pandemic concerns.

Indiana’s proposal would require a voter to submit their 10-digit Indiana driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their mail-in ballot application. Bill opponents counter this will lead to many applications being rejected because voters won’t know which number is on file with their county election office and some older voter registration records don’t include either number.

Indiana’s bill would also prohibit the state election commission from changing an election date or expanding mail-in voting options as they did for the 2020 primary, a move which was supported by Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana GOP and Democratic party leaders.

On Friday, Major League Baseball said it would no longer host the 2021 All-Star Game in Georgia, where tension is mounting over a new voting law that adds a photo ID requirement for voting absentee by mail, cuts the amount of time people have to request an absentee ballot and limits where drop boxes can be placed and when they can be accessed, according to The Associated Press.

It also bans people from handing out food or water to voters waiting in line and allows the Republican-controlled State Election Board to remove and replace county election officials.

In Texas, which already has some of the strictest voting laws in the country, the proposed legislation grants more power to partisan poll watchers and eliminates the option to cast a ballot via drive-thru, according to wire reports. The bill also includes a provision requiring a doctor’s note for people with disabilities who want to vote by mail, although Republicans signaled during the debate that language could change.

Republicans have argued laws like the one passed in Georgia and proposed in Texas are needed to restore voters’ confidence in elections. They also have rejected accusations that the bills were designed to suppress turnout, according to wire reports.

The subject of voter fraud has received increased attention after Trump started pushing numerous baseless claims of widespread voter fraud after he lost the 2020 presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.

However, his claims of voter fraud are not supported by research or historical records.

Election experts widely say all forms of voter fraud are rare, according to wire reports. The Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at infinitesimal 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections.

“There are very few cases of fraud, very few cases of lack of safety or any of those issues,” Linebarger said. “So the question is: What problem are we trying to solve?”

But deciding whether to speak out, as well as the polarized political climate in the United States, has put some business leaders in an uncomfortable position in which they face potential backlash no matter what they do.

Civil rights activists blamed influential executives in Georgia for not helping spike the new law that’s become a focal point in the nationwide, partisan fight over voting rights, according to wire reports.

At the same time, some Republicans have criticized executives for speaking out, including Trump, who said in a statement Friday, "Boycott baseball and all of the woke companies that are interfering with free and fair elections."

Linebarger said he tries to stay out of politics unless legislation goes against the spirit of longstanding Cummins values, but he acknowledged he has felt the need to publicly weigh into politics more often over the last several years.

“I am sensing that more of those lines have been crossed recently than maybe in the past,” Linebarger said. “… I have noticed that. I don’t relish that circumstance (to speak out) to be honest because I worry sometimes that it contributes to politicizing a lot of things and it’s not my intent. My intent is to make sure our communities are places where people are included.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.