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Companies Condemn Georgia’s Restrictive Voting Law Amid Pressure Campaign From Advocates

11 minute read

Corporations in Georgia and across the U.S. are taking forceful stances against the state’s new election law—which includes several voting restrictions—following weeks of pressure from voting rights advocates to speak out. Activists have aimed their efforts at large Georgia-based companies in particular, such as Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, who initially only offered vague statements affirming voting rights as the legislation sped through the state legislature. But on Wednesday, the CEOs of both companies publicly rebuked the new law, calling it “unacceptable,” irking leading Republicans, including Gov. Brian Kemp and state House Speaker David Ralston. And on Friday, Major League Baseball announced that it would move it’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta, citing their support for voting rights and opposition to restrictions to the ballot box, just days after President Joe Biden said he would support such a move.

Georgia’s expansive election measure, which Kemp signed into law on March 25, installed limitations on dropboxes, strengthened voter ID requirements for absentee ballots, criminalized non-poll workers giving food and water to voters in line within a specific distance, shortened runoff elections, banned the use of provisional ballots for votes cast out-of-precinct before 5 p.m. and all but eliminated the use of mobile voting buses, barring emergencies, among other new rules. Although Georgia’s Republicans backed off on initial proposals to curtail Sunday voting (the law now expands early voting weekend days in the general election) and end no-excuse absentee voting following backlash, voting rights advocates worry the law will especially harm Black and brown voters and have already collectively filed at least four lawsuits against the measure.

Across Georgia, voting rights advocates mounted several campaigns calling for corporations to speak out against the law even before the bill passed the state legislature. The tactics differed among groups, with some demanding corporate boycotts while others urged against it, arguing it could hurt working-class Georgians. Numerous Black corporate leaders also came out in opposition to the passing of laws that restrict voting access for Black voters, including the Georgia measure; after it passed, a group of 72 Black executives, including Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, placed a full-page ad in the New York Times’ Wednesday print edition condemning Georgia’s election law.

While companies have since released more forceful statements, advocates argue they must do much more, including divesting support from lawmakers who backed the law, publicly urging lawmakers to repeal it, publicly condemning similar laws in other state legislatures, adopting policies that make it easier for their own employees to vote and using their political clout to push for federal voting rights legislation currently before Congress.

“It’s not enough to talk the talk; you have to walk the walk,” says Aklima Khondoker, Georgia State Director for All Voting is Local, a national voting rights group. “Call for a repeal of this bill. Call for a ban of all of these provisions. Do that publicly. With their voice it’s going to be incredibly loud and hard to ignore when those corporations speak.”

Coca-Cola, Delta and other corporations speak out against the restrictive law

After outcry from voting rights advocates criticizing their relatively tepid initial response, Delta CEO Ed Bastian issued a public memo to employees on Wednesday emphasizing the importance of voting rights, saying the law “unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.”

“The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections,” Bastian said. “This is simply not true. Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights.” (Delta Airlines declined to comment further in response to a request from TIME.)

Georgia’s Republicans made clear they were unhappy with Delta’s stance. “These corporate companies are being attacked by activist groups that have a financial interest in doing so,” Kemp told CNBC on Wednesday, adding that concerns from business leaders were misguided. He took particular aim at Delta. “They did not express any reservations about the final product of this bill,” Kemp said. “It wasn’t until a couple of days after we signed it—after the political pressure—that Ed Bastian is now putting out a statement.”

State House Republicans did more than just verbally condemn Delta, and passed a bill that would revoke a jet fuel tax break that would likely cost the air line millions of dollars. (The measure ultimately failed, as the Senate did not consider it on the last day of Georgia’s 2021 legislative session on Wednesday.) “They like our public policy when we’re doing things that benefit them,” said House Speaker David Ralston, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand. You got to keep that in mind sometimes.”

Georgia Democrats said the reaction from Republicans sent an unwelcome message to corporations considering doing business in the state. Republican state leadership is “not afraid to use an economic whip,” Democratic State Sen. Jen Jordan tells TIME.

“If I’m a big company looking to come here, I don’t want to think that if my company makes a statement or takes a position or has a policy that maybe the GOP governor of the state doesn’t like, that then that is going to affect the economic viability of my company,” Jordan says. “I’m going to think twice before coming here. Those kinds of antics, those kinds of threats, they’re really corrosive.”

Jordan notes it’s not the first time Georgia’s Republicans have retaliated against Delta for speaking out. In 2018, they killed a proposal that would have given the airline a tax break on jet fuel when Delta ended a discount for NRA members following the Parkland school shooting.

Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey also chimed in Wednesday and called the new law “a step backward” in an interview with CNBC, adding that they had “always opposed” the measure and would continue to advocate about the issue privately and publicly.

“We want to be crystal clear and state unambiguously that we are disappointed in the outcome of the Georgia voting legislation,” Quincey said in a statement to TIME. “Additionally, our focus is now on supporting federal legislation that protects voting access and addresses voter suppression across the country.”

In addition to Delta and Coca-Cola, executives from multiple other big companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Google and Citi, and sports teams, including the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Falcons, have spoken out about the importance of voting rights in the context of Georgia’s new law—some with more specific statements than others.

Charles Phillips, co-founder and co-chairman of the Black Economic Alliance (BEA), who helped draft and signed the letter signed by 72 Black executives, tells TIME he wants corporate America to realize this is a “national issue. It’s not just Georgia.” Lawmakers have introduced more than 360 bills that would restrict voting in 47 states as of March 24, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Phillips says he and fellow Black executives should leverage their financial power and political influence to help pass federal legislation to expand voting through Congress “or else we’ll be doing this 50 times” as well as “not fund legislators who are voting for these sorts of restrictions.”

Advocates say more is needed from business community

Calls for corporate accountability from voting rights advocates have ramped up in the week since Gov. Kemp signed the restrictive bill into law, with groups split over the best way to apply pressure. Some have called for consumer boycotts, such as Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the Bishop of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—which encompasses over 500 churches in Georgia—and several other faith and community leaders who announced an economic boycott of Coca-Cola, Delta and Home Depot on April 1. “We cannot and will not support the companies that do not support us in our struggle to cast our ballots and exercise our freedom,” Jackson said during the press conference in front of the World of Coca-Cola tourist attraction in Atlanta.

In a March 29 interview with TIME, Jackson pointed to a statement released by the company’s CEO amid Black Lives Matter protests last June that said companies like Coca-Cola “must speak up as allies to the Black Lives Matter movement” and that the company stands “with those seeking justice and equality.” Yet as the restrictive bill moved through the Georgia state legislature, Jackson argues, the company did not forcefully condemn it.

While also calling for more accountability from these corporations, other voting rights groups like Fair Fight and All Voting is Local argue consumer boycotts would be counterproductive as they could hurt working class Georgians who make up much of these companies’ work force. Their preference was to demand ‘pro-voter messaging” through other means—such as social media campaigns and other forms of public pressure. Black Voters Matter, a national voting rights group active in Georgia, for their part, says they neither discourage nor encourage a boycott; although Cliff Albright, the groups co-founder, said he was “encouraged” by talks of the MLB boycott.

“Just like we say that elected officials have to be accountable to the community, corporations have to be accountable to their community,” says Albright. “They’ve got to be accountable to the taxpayers, who prop up this democracy to make their businesses even be possible.”

Regardless of pressure tactics, advocates agree Georgia companies must do more to fulfill commitments to racial justice and equity. “Nothing about the statements from Coca Cola and Delta changes our demands for corporate accountability and concrete action to defeat voter suppression in Georgia and beyond,” Albright says in a statement to TIME. While Coca-Cola and Delta were “late to realize the Georgia law is ‘unacceptable,’” he says, “they still have time” to publicly speak out against similarly restrictive bills in Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Texas.

Black Voters Matter, All Voting is Local and several other voting rights advocates have called upon Delta, Coca-Cola and other prominent companies to use their clout to push for the passage of federal voting rights bills HR1 and HR4, called the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, respectively—which are both currently before Congress. Corporations should take actions that “include a variety of steps,” from testifying before Congress, galvanizing other corporations and supporting voting rights advocacy groups, Albright says. “This is an issue that affects every state and every voter, and as national and global companies, they must work in concrete ways towards advancing this federal legislation,” he continues.

Corporations also have a lot of work left to do in Georgia, advocates say. Phillips says corporations could also help with voter registration in Georgia, given the new law makes registration more difficult. Khondoker argues companies can help support pro-voter organizations already active in the state, and Jordan says that companies can take steps for employees such as giving them adequate time off to vote and offering bonuses to those who volunteer as poll workers. Albright also says companies can “divest from contributing to the elected officials who sponsored and voted for these bills.” He adds that such corporations also “must still work aggressively and publicly to convince state legislators to repeal the” new voting law.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he says.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com and Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com