After weeks of pressure from activists some major companies and prominent Black executives are taking a somewhat harder line in speaking out against a new law in Georgia to restrict voting access.
Delta Airlines, one of the Georgia-based companies that declined to speak out as the measure moved through the legislature, issued a forceful statement on Wednesday, saying the law was “unacceptable”.
“After having time to now fully understand all that is in the bill, coupled with discussions with leaders and employees in the Black community, it’s evident that the bill includes provisions that will make it harder for many underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives. That is wrong.” Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO, wrote in a company memo on Wednesday.
“The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections. This is simply not true. Desafortunadamente, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights,"Añadió.
The statement is an abrupt reversal for Delta, which for weeks declined to say it explicitly opposed the Georgia measure. Two weeks ago, when the measure was being crafted in the state legislature, a Delta spokesperson told the Guardian that “ensuring an election system that promotes broad voter participation, equal access to the polls, and fair, secure elections processes are critical to voter confidence and creates an environment that ensures everyone’s vote is counted”.
Delta’s statement came just after some of America’s top Black business leaders and CEOs released a letter condemning widespread efforts across the United States to make it harder to vote. “There is no middle ground here,” Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO of American Express, told The New York Times, which first reported on the letter. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”
James Quincey, the CEO of Coca-Cola, which has largely stayed quiet over the last few weeks, also pivoted his company’s stance on Wednesday.
“This legislation is unacceptable. It is a step backwards," he told CNBC. “This legislation is wrong and needs to be remedied and we will continue to advocate for it both in private and now even more clearly in public.”
Asked why he took so long to issue a full-throated condemnation of the law, Quincey insisted the company has “always” opposed the legislation, even though it has declined to say that for weeks.
The Georgia law requires voters to provide identification when they request and return absentee ballots, limits the availability of absentee drop boxes, reduces the length of runoff elections, allows for unlimited challenges to voter qualifications, and gives Republicans in the state legislature more influence over the state election board as well as a pathway to meddle with local boards. The law also makes it illegal to provide food or water to anyone standing in line to vote.
Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, one of the groups leading the pressure campaign, welcomed the statement from Delta, even though she said it was “late”.
“This is where the problem lies. Conversations with Black and Brown leaders must happen at all stages and all areas of decision-making, not after the damage is done. Here’s the lesson: listen to Black and Brown people,” she said in a statement. She added that the company should now call out voting restrictions advancing through other state legislatures and support sweeping voting rights legislation in Congress.
Deborah Scott, the executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, another civic action group, called for a boycott of Georgia and Coca-Cola on Wednesday.
“Although condemning Georgia’s anti-democratic moves is right and vocal support is welcome, the most effective response is one that will hit the pocketbooks of Georgia’s ruling elite – an economic boycott of the state,” she said in a statement. “This is a historic opportunity, comparable to other watershed civil rights moments such as the Montgomery bus boycott and Selma.”
While Delta insisted it worked behind the scenes to remove some of the most onerous restrictions in the measure, the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, said he was surprised by the company’s stance.
“Today’s statement by Delta CEO Ed Bastian stands in stark contrast to our conversations with the company, ignores the content of the new law, and unfortunately continues to spread the same false attacks being repeated by partisan activists,” Kemp said, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Desde 2018, Delta has donated more than 41,600 to lawmakers who backed voting restrictions, according to Popular Information, an independent newsletter.
A senior Republican also told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that lawmakers were weighing ways to punish the company after a statement that was “akin to Delta shooting us in the face with a shotgun without telling us it was coming.”
Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons football team also released a statement on Tuesday condemning the new law.
“Every voice and every vote matters and should be heard through our democratic process in Georgia. The right to vote is simply sacred. We should be working to make voting easier, not harder for every eligible citizen,” Blank said in a statement on Tuesday. Spokespeople for both the Atlanta Braves and Hawks, the city’s baseball and basketball teams respectively, declined to comment on the measure on Tuesday.
Corporations have signaled a willingness to speak out on controversial issues in recent years, from LGBTQ+ rights to the environment. But observers in recent weeks have questioned why companies have not brought the same force to opposing voting rights in Georgia.
“They are looking at their best business interests, and when the pressure from one side increases, they essentially realize ‘hey look there’s a side where I need to weigh in and at this point I need to step up and make my opinion clear,’” said Tarun Kushwaha, a marketing professor at George Mason University. “My hunch is that the Georgia, Atlanta, based organizations were slow at doing this is they feared that there might be repercussions for them. Repercussions not just in terms of customers, but repercussions from the legislature.”
Beyond Delta, activists have also singled out Coca-Cola, UPS, Home Depot, Aflac, and Southern Company to oppose the measure. La semana pasada, leaders of the sixth district of the AME church, representing more than 500 Black churches in Georgia, went even further and called for a Coca-Cola boycott.
There have also been growing calls for sports officials to sanction Georgia over the law. The president of the Major League Baseball players’ union indicated he was open to discussion about moving the league’s All Star Game from Atlanta this summer. The National Black Justice Coalition has also called on the PGA Tour to move the Master’s golf tournament out of Georgia.