Ben & Jerry’s is churning out a campaign against laws that restrict access to voting.
The ice cream giant on Tuesday announced a new flavor, Empower Mint, as part of the nascent effort to register voters in states where new rules meant to curb virtually nonexistent fraud threaten to keep eligible voters away from ballot boxes. The mint ice cream contains chunks of brownie and swirls of fudge.
“There’s been an organized and coordinated attempt to keep certain groups of voters out of the process -- people of color, low-income people, especially,” Jerry Greenfield, one of the Unilever-owned company’s co-founders, told The Huffington Post in an interview last week.
“Instead of expanding voting and making the United States as democratic as it can be -- setting an example for the rest of the world -- there has been this effort to prevent people from voting when there’s been no evidence there’s any kind of problem with voting or voting fraud. It’s absurd," said Greenfield.
Ben & Jerry's campaign, though national in scope, is centered on North Carolina, which has become a major political battleground during this fever-dream of an election year.
The state has served as a theater for a dramatic fight over the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the latter of whom became the target of the hastily passed HB2 ordinance, the so-called bathroom law that banned trans people from using the restroom associated with their gender identity. A coalition of giant companies cried foul and went to war with the state, which is now facing a civil rights lawsuit from the federal government.
But that’s not what drew Greenfield and his Ben & Jerry's co-founder, Ben Cohen, to the Tar Heel state.
Last month, a federal judge upheld a North Carolina law that requires voters to show a photo I.D. at the polls. Such laws, which have passed through state legislatures after the election of President Barack Obama, make it harder for minorities, the elderly and students to vote because they disproportionately lack the required form of identification.
Additionally, North Carolina's measure prohibits people from registering and voting on the same day, reduces the number of days of early voting, disqualifies ballots cast in the wrong precinct and bans the pre-registering of teenagers before they turn 18.
“The reason Ben & Jerry’s chose North Carolina is there’s a lot of activity in terms of voter rights and overcoming voter suppression efforts there,” Greenfield told HuffPost. “There’s also a real history of civil right struggle in North Carolina. For us, it’s about the groups doing work there.”
A forthcoming documentary, "The New Fight for Voting Rights," offers a historical look at the South's checkered history on this issue and the new challenges that exist today:
The New York Times called North Carolina the “purest distillation of the nation’s wars over voting rules and legislative gerrymandering.” The Washington Post dubbed the state the “epicenter of the voting rights battle.” Richard Hasen, a law professor University of California Irvine who writes at Election Law Blog, declared the state’s new rules “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades,” designed “to make it harder for people -- especially non-white people and those likely to vote Democratic -- to register or cast a vote that will be counted.”
In response to the North Carolina law, Ben & Jerry's partnered with the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to lead a registration effort.
The company plans to send Antonio McBroom, a Ben & Jerry's franchise owner in Greensboro, around the state in a branded ice cream truck to give out free scoops and literature on how to avoid the pitfalls of the new voting law, and why Ben & Jerry’s opposes it.
“Ben & Jerry’s is good at raising issues, and we’re also good at partnering with local organizations that are doing the actual work,” Greenfield said. “Let’s not pretend that Ben & Jerry’s is going to be the experts in terms of swooping in and fixing the problems. That’s not where we can be the most effective.”
The campaign marks one of the ice cream barons’ most notable political pushes this year. Last month, the founding duo was arrested outside the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., during a rally against the influx of money in politics.
In January, the Vermont-based company released Bernie’s Yearning, a limited-edition ice cream flavor championing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ fight against income inequality. The company denied working with Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, as both Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s have policies against endorsing candidates or partisan issues.
But Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of stumping for political causes that align with the hippie flair of its founders' beliefs. Among them were pushes to support LGBTQ rights and marriage equality, environmental justice and the labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops.
“The idea that business exists simply to maximize profit and not use its power to be helpful in society is really destructive,” Greenfield said. “The reality is businesses are always very political, it’s just that, normally, they’re political behind the scenes in a covert way.”