Do Ce Os Vote? Not Always And Not Often

Of 100 top execs examined, most were inconsistent visitors to the ballot booth

As CEO of Halliburton (HAL), Dick Cheney helped bankroll a lot of political campaigns. He apparently figured that was enough, since when Election Day rolled around, Cheney often didn't bother going to the polls. The onetime Defense Secretary under President George Bush--now George W. Bush's running mate--voted in federal elections but skipped 14 out of 16 local elections in the five years he lived in Texas.

As it turns out, Cheney has plenty of company. BUSINESS WEEK examined the voting record of 100 top executives. We found that the majority voted in most federal elections, but even as Congress shifts more decision-making power to state governments, precious few bothered to vote regularly in state or municipal elections.

A disturbing number of top executives, however, had worse-than-spotty records. No registration could be found for a small group of execs such as AT&T's (T) Mike Armstrong, eBay's (EBAY) Meg Whitman, and Yahoo!'s (YHOO) Tim Koogle. Charles Ergen of Echostar Communications (DISH) registered on Oct. 10, and James Goodwin of UAL (UAL) updated his registration on Oct. 18--both after inquiries were made. And some corporate chieftains, such as Oracle's (ORCL) Larry Ellison and Nabisco Group's (NGH) Steven Goldstone, are registered but don't vote.

On the other hand, a significant number of high-level executives are sterling citizens, voting in every federal, state, and local election. Among them are Glen Barton of Caterpillar (CAT), Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), Business Roundtable co-Chairman Joseph Gorman of TRW (TRW), and Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines (LUV).

ECLETIC LIST. To compile the list of 100 executives, BUSINESS WEEK paid Washington (D.C.)-based Aristotle International Inc., a political research firm, for use of its nationwide database of voter-registration information. We then verified the information with election officials--and executives themselves whenever possible. Because local laws vary, we were able to obtain access to information dating back to the 1980s for some executives, while much shorter histories were available for others.

Our list includes executives from a cross-section of industrial and New Economy businesses, though we especially focused on sectors that are facing legislative and regulatory challenges in Washington. That's why executives from the top financial-services, pharmaceutical, and high-tech companies are heavily represented. We added execs who hold leadership positions with trade or lobbying groups, such as W.R. Timken Jr., chairman and CEO of Canton (Ohio)-based Timken Co. (TKR) and president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Finally, we included a few political high-rollers, such as Republican Dick Devos, president of Amway, and Thomas J. Pritzker, chairman and CEO of Hyatt and a top Democratic fund-raiser.

An eclectic list, to be sure, and not one to be used to make sweeping generalizations. But we did turn up some interesting tidbits. Approximately two-thirds of the execs voted in the '98 congressional elections, giving them almost twice as good a turnout that year as the public at large. Only 25% ever cast ballots in state or municipal elections; even fewer do so regularly. That's on a par with the number of eligible voters, on average, who participate at the state and local level.

NUDGED. The view from Washington's lobbyists is that there's room for improvement on the home front. Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, NAM, and the National Beer Wholesalers Assn. this year launched a program to encourage executives to get to the polls or send in absentee ballots if they're going to be on the road.

Corporate lobbyists say that business leaders as a group could make a difference in key races if they turned out in higher numbers. Case in point: the 1998 Senate race in Nevada, where incumbent Senator Harry Reid defeated Republican challenger and business favorite John Ensign by only 428 votes.

Despite good turnout by the nation's highest-ranking executives, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a Washington group that supports pro-business candidates, estimates that there are 12 million mid- and upper-level managers who don't vote. "Some 10,000 votes spread over 13 races in '98 could have changed the party in power in the House," says Greg Casey, president of BIPAC. "Effective political involvement is more than money."

Surprisingly, some execs with a lot on the line in Washington even skip federal elections. America Online (AOL) Chairman Steve Case is one example. Case is looking for federal trustbusters to sign off on AOL's planned megadeal with Time Warner (TWX). He wants a permanent ban on Internet taxes and is pushing to increase the number of skilled immigrants allowed to work in the U.S. Case registered to vote in Fairfax County, Va., but hasn't cast a ballot there since at least 1996, the earliest year for which local records are available. America Online President and COO Robert Pittman, who also is registered to vote in Virginia, missed the '98 election, too.

"PRIVATE MATTER." It's anybody's guess whether Case and Pittman will vote on Nov. 7. They and nearly every other executive queried about gaps in their voting records declined comment. Through their spokespeople, most said that voting was their personal business. A typical response was this statement from Philip Morris (MO) spokeswoman Peggy Roberts: "We consider it a personal and private matter." Philip Morris Chairman and CEO Geoffrey Bible has voted, but he stayed home in 1998 and doesn't turn out for local elections, according to officials in Fairfield County, Conn.

Voting might be a personal and private matter to some executives, but "you forfeit the right to complain if you haven't been involved in the election process itself," asserts NAM lobbyist Mike Baroody. "The best way to lead is by example."

TAKE THAT! Others say not voting is a statement in itself. Steven Goldstone, chairman and CEO of Nabisco Group Holdings, doesn't vote on principle. Nabisco spokesman Jason Wright says Goldstone was "disgusted" with both parties when he tried to help reach a settlement on tobacco lawsuits. "He voted not to vote," Wright says. "He has not been enamored of the political process of late." That strikes others as hypocritical. "It's inconsistent, particularly if those people are otherwise active in the process and raising money," says Kelly Stanley, chairman of the U.S. Chamber and CEO of Ontario Corp. in Muncie, Ind.

Novell CEO Eric Schmidt, a registered Democrat, missed the '98 elections (he can't remember why), but he urges his employees to get to the polls and wants other Silicon Valley execs to be more involved in public policy. At the same time, he understands why some of his peers don't vote. On Nov. 7, while others are casting their ballots, San Jose-based Novell will be holding a big meeting for its sales staff in San Francisco. Schmidt has planned ahead, though, and has obtained his absentee ballot.

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