Memo from boss: Here's how I'd vote

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Big business is watching you.

Caterpillar, Household International, ExxonMobil, PPG Industries and half the Fortune 100 have signed on with a program that pushes their companies' views of political candidates to employees via Web sites and interoffice e-mails.

The Business Industry Political Action Committee's "Prosperity Project" program targets 20 million employees in battleground states. The committee is especially concerned about confirmation of pro-business judges and has focused most of its attention on congressional races.

Companies using the program generally offer Web sites with candidate voting records on key business issues and often include voter guides, issue statements and information on absentee ballots. Some go further with e-mail alerts offering further details and urging employees to vote.

Greg Casey, president-CEO of BIPAC, said the group does not tell employees to vote for a particular candidate. "We tell [businesses] 'Don't tell [employees] how to vote. Tell them how the issues impact them."'

"A person's employer is the single most credible source of job-related information," Mr. Casey said, adding that "there is an affinity between working folks and their employer."

Therein lies the problem, said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "There is a cost that the public will bear-in terms of healthy families, a decent environment and a more open democracy-because of BIPAC's narrow, self-serving agenda." He added that "such arm-twisting to generate support for their favored candidates, and the costs which occur at shareholder expense, needs to be brought up at public shareholders' meetings."

Mr. Casey said he finds it "ironic" that someone who promotes democracy is concerned about his group's activities. "It's democracy at its finest. It's the epitome of putting people back in politics."

He said while employers are unlikely to be effective talking about Iraq, they can be far more effective in discussing major domestic issues like the economy and health care.

Under Federal Elections Commission regulations, employers can give formal endorsements only to management and stockholders, but can provide basic information to all employees. Mr. Casey said BIPAC's activities are helped by increasing employee stock ownership.

Common Cause, a promoter of campaign-finance reform, sees nothing wrong with the tactic. "If this is a way to engage employees in the political process, that is good. It's part of the give and take of politics," said Celia Wexler, VP-advocacy.

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