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February 01, 2023

Midyear 2023: ‘Fourth branch’ tackles U.S. election crisis

What role can — and should — the so-called “fourth branch” of government (corporations, nonprofits and other interest groups) play in influencing federal, state and local governments? And how are they addressing division, apathy and disinformation in elections?

Those are among the topics that a panel of experts will discuss in “How the ‘Fourth Branch’ Can Help Preserve the Rule of Law in Elections” on Friday, Feb. 3, at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in New Orleans. The program is sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law.

Corporations and nonprofits are now “quite active in elections, because elections drive policy,” says Jason D. Kaune, a partner in the San Francisco Bay Area office of Nielsen Merksamer and chair of SCEL.

The role of the Corporate Social Responsibility movement, which prioritizes playing a positive role in the community and taking into account the environmental and social impact of business decisions will be examined.

Molly Meegan will provide her perspective from the nonprofit side. She’s the chief legal officer and general counsel at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and previously worked in the legal department at the Human Rights Campaign, both in Washington, D.C.

She will talk about how nonprofits increasingly partner with corporations and describe the challenges to organizations as they get involved in politics and policy with a business entity.

The two organizations Meegan’s worked for have been at the “epicenter of controversial issues” (LGBTQ issues and abortion) and by necessity have had to be involved in politics and elections, Kaune says.

Bruce Freed, president and co-founder of the Center for Political Accountability in Washington, D.C., which focuses on improving transparency and accountability in corporate political spending, will talk about the influence of money in elections.

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, “the door is wide open,” Kaune says — there’s a lot more money, including dark money, to use as leverage in elections.

Maritza T. Adonis, chief executive officer of MTA Visions, a corporate social responsibility and government relations firm, has taught CSR in law schools and will speak to the need for some basic legal definitions around it.

Kaune plans to give an update on SCEL’s work with the Business Law Section to develop those basic definitions and add historic perspective of corporate involvement in elections, politics and democracy.

The program will also promote how lawyers can get involved in Poll Worker, Esq., an ongoing ABA election initiative with the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors, and Kaune says SCEL will continue to lobby for attorney poll workers to qualify for CLE in every state.