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February 07, 2024

Bars and businesses can help turn tide on civic education

As the country gears up for another presidential election in 2024, claims of democracy in peril and concerns about election integrity are taking center stage. All citizens bear the responsibility of upholding and securing our democracy, but lawyers carry a special obligation.

Mark Howard, Terri Meldrum, and Dominique Calhoun discuss the important role businesses play in promoting democracy at ABA Midyear Meeting.

Mark Howard, Terri Meldrum, and Dominique Calhoun discuss the important role businesses play in promoting democracy at ABA Midyear Meeting.

American Bar Association photo

But lawyers alone cannot address all the issues or reach all the people. They need to work in concert with other groups to educate and inform. At the ABA Midyear Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, on Feb. 1, the program “How Bars Can Collaborate with Businesses to Promote Democracy” explored the need for a strong democracy for the corporate world to thrive and ways that businesses can help engage with their local communities to promote civics and civic education. The program was co-sponsored by the ABA Advisory Commission to the Task Force for American Democracy and the ABA Cornerstones of Democracy Commission.

ABA Immediate Past President Deborah Enix-Ross, who created the Cornerstones Commission during her presidency, moderated the discussion, which centered on what businesses can do to advance civility, civics education and the rule of law.

She asked the panel if they agreed with a headline in Forbes magazine: “A Thriving Democracy is Good for Business.” The panelists — Dominique Calhoun, president of the National Bar Association; Mark Howard, executive vice president and chief legal officer of Nationwide; and Terri W. Meldrum, senior vice president and general counsel of OhioHealth Corporation — all agreed. “I’m glad you all agree,” Enix-Ross said, “since that’s the whole premise of this program!”

Voter education provides a unique opportunity for businesses to support their communities’ civic health and strengthen their relationships with customers and employees. Bar leaders and bar associations can bring together corporate chief legal officers to showcase how businesses can stand more broadly for civic values, specifically in defense against rising threats to democracy.

“A thriving democracy creates stability,” Meldrum said. “Instability in the electoral process and instability in the regulatory process” create worry and hurt businesses.

Howard talked about Nationwide’s Civic Action Program, which has been in existence for 45 years. The program exposes employees to the voting process and to the issues involved in elections in, as he stressed, “a nonpartisan fashion.” The program offers education on elections, candidates and issues, poll worker training, voter registration opportunities and forums with thought leaders and political candidates.

Nationwide partnered with the ABA’s Cornerstones Commission for a program in Columbus, Ohio, in July 2023 that Howard called a huge success with a packed house and two overflow rooms. Howard emphasized that the “relationship and trust you have with employees” plays an important role in the success of such programs.

Meldrum called Nationwide’s Civic Action Program “best in class” and “most impressive” and added that involving the bar and legal community in the program is helpful. “They should be the go-to in community understanding of civics,” Meldrum said.

Calhoun said that bar associations need to be involved, saying the National Bar Association has a Standing Committee on Elections that works to educate the public on civic education and train the next generation of civic leaders. “Before cable TV news, people trusted news,” Calhoun said. “Now, they only look at certain pockets of information.” He said bars and businesses can help produce a source of trusted information.

Walking the line on being nonpartisan can be tricky, but the panel agreed it was worth the effort. Howard said to be “mindful” of the pitfalls of these programs, such as backlash, but that “they should not prohibit you from conducting programs.”

Meldrum added that civics education programs should not be “about the politics or the policy, but about the system.”

“If it means something — and it does — you can’t have fear that someone will attack you for doing the right thing and protecting democracy,” Calhoun said.

The program concluded with Bill Ide, vice chair of the ABA Task Force for American Democracy and former ABA president, outlining the lack of civic knowledge in the country and saying we are at a “critical moment in history.” He summarized the task force’s plan for working papers, listening tours, rapid response teams and strategic communications. He asked lawyers to get involved, reminding them that as lawyers, they took an oath to uphold the Constitution.