(CNN)A belated but growing corporate backlash came too late to halt Georgia’s new election law but voting rights activists are now calling on US CEOs to prove their long-term commitment to the fight against Republican voter suppression.
Huge employers in the Atlanta area, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, on Wednesday steered into a confrontation with Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed the law critics described as a revival of Jim Crow racism.
Their shift came after initial and widely criticized silence or ambivalence from powerful corporate leaders following the passage of the law that discriminates against Black voters and is rooted in ex-President Donald Trump’s election fraud lies.
The measure introduces new impediments to voting, reducing the number of drop boxes in heavily African American areas and allows the state to intervene to assert control over the conduct of elections in Democratic counties. It shortens the time available for absentee votes and introduces new registration requirements that campaigners say are designed to target Black voters.
After Delta initially blandly expressed support for voting rights and largely accepted the GOP line of the law earlier this week, the airline’s CEO Ed Bastian issued a memo to employees Wednesday blasting it — saying he had now had sufficient time to understand its true effect.
“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,” Bastian said, adding that the law was based on a “lie” of election fraud in 2020 in Georgia.
James Quincey, the CEO of Coca-Cola, told CNBC on Wednesday that his firm had “always opposed this legislation” and called it “unacceptable” after fierce pressure from civil rights organizations for a stronger stance from the soft drinks giant. Both Delta and Coca-Cola were targeted by hashtag campaigns on social media calling for boycotts.
A cynic might argue that large corporations rushing to condemn the law are acting as big business usually does, to protect the reputation of their brands and to avoid alienating their customer base on a heated political issue.
The time it took for the backlash to emerge explains the rush by Republican state lawmakers to speed it to the governor’s desk earlier this month. But it’s hard to take seriously claims by some of the world’s most sophisticated companies that it took a while to find out what was in the bill.
2020 election shockwaves
The shifting attitudes in the corporate world over the legislation reflect the still reverberating shockwaves of the 2020 election and Trump’s destruction of the tradition of peaceful transfers of power in his effort to overturn his election loss. Like every individual citizen, and American entity, big firms are being called upon to make a choice they would probably prefer to avoid on which side of the divide they fall — not least since the democratic system that made them mighty is still under assault. The most recent tally by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that 361 bills with provisions that restrict voting have been introduced in 47 states across the country as of March 24 — marking a 43% rise in the number of bills introduced since Brennan last released a count a little over a month ago.
Whether Democrats and voting rights campaigners now have how powerful allies in the fight against a wave of voter suppression measures in multiple states will be borne out by events. The Georgia Democratic Party said the CEOs of Coca-Cola and Delta were right to criticize the law but said they should now strongly get behind two Democratic House bills in Washington sent to the Senate that would help overturn restrictions on voting in states like Georgia.
The legislation would reverse many of the provisions of GOP laws and bills in Georgia, Texas, Arizona and other states by establishing national voter standards. But it faces a daunting outlook with even some Senate Democrats wary of some details. And to pass them, Democrats may have to ignite a political conflagration by abolishing the tradition of the filibuster that effectively means a 60-vote supermajority is needed to pass major legislation.
“We look forward to engaging with Georgia companies like Coca-Cola and Delta as real partners on these critical issues, which affect the civil rights of Georgians and all Americans,” Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Peach State’s Democratic Party, said in a statement that kept up the pressure.
Companies face change
A rush of statements by corporate leaders criticizing the Georgia law underscores how sensitive big corporations are to public opinion — at least in the short term. They may also reflect the pressure from large Georgia-based workforces and also a judgment on the consumer of the future. Long-term demographic trends are unfavorable to White conservative political leaders facing a tide of diversity that could overwhelm their cultural populism in coming decades. Companies that get on the wrong side of the equation could dent their bottom lines in years to come.
Pressure in the corporate world for more companies to speak out came amid an effort by Black business leaders led by Kenneth Chenault, the ex-CEO of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck, to get their corporate colleagues to take stronger positions against voter suppression.
“Corporations have to stand up. There is no middle ground,” Chenault, said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” at the start of the day in which the corporate backlash and its reprisals played out on the business channel.
In a full page ad in The New York Times, Chenault and more than 70 other Black executives called on corporations to mobilize against any legislation compromising voting rights.
“The new law and others like it are both undemocratic and un-American, and they are wrong,” the ad said. “Make no mistake, we have seen this playbook before by those who seek to deny their fellow Americans the opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box. “
Kemp, Georgia’s Republican governor, also appeared on CNBC and strongly pushed back at the CEOs, arguing that they had cherry picked items of the law and didn’t understand it.
“If they want to have a debate about the merits and the facts of the bill, then we should do that,” said Kemp, who stood firm against Trump’s attempts to reverse President Joe Biden’s win in Georgia but fell in line with the GOP law.
The governor argued that critics ignore the fact that the new law now requires every county in Georgia to provide a drop box for early votes to be collected. But he did not mention new limits on the number of drop boxes allowed, and on the hours in which they can be accessed, which in effect makes it harder to vote in Democratic-leaning counties plagued by long Election Day lines.
In a statement, Kemp also hit out at the criticism of the law from Bastian, the Delta CEO, claiming that there was no difference between requiring people to show official IDs like drivers’ licenses to allow people to vote or to board a plane.
Sports next to feel the pressure
The intervention of the corporate CEOs is a sign of success for the pressure campaign by Democrats and civil rights groups in Georgia, now a critical swing state. Biden became the first Democrat since 1992 to win the state, which was also responsible for handing his party control of a 50-50 Senate in two run-off elections in January.
The voting law will ensure an incendiary race for the gubernatorial mansion in 2022 — which could pit Kemp in a rematch against voting rights campaigner and former Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams who played a key role in turning the state blue in November.
Abrams has called the slow initial corporate response to the new voter law untenable but she said in an op-ed in USA Today on Wednesday that boycotts of big firms were not yet necessary.
She called on business leaders to recognize the reality of what is happening as Republicans seek to introduce new voting laws nationwide in response to Trump’s loss. Big business should also put steel in their criticism by refusing to make campaign donations to legislators who are suppressing votes, she said.
“I ask like-minded Americans to hold corporations to their professed values — by measuring their actions and demanding they stand with us,” Abrams wrote.
The next front in the pressure campaign against Georgia’s law could come in sports. Ahead of Thursday’s Opening Day, the Major League Baseball Players Association has said it is open to discussing this year’s All-Star Game out of Georgia. The state’s politics is likely to intrude in next week’s Masters tournament at Augusta National, the first golf major of the year.
The National Black Justice Coalition, a leading civil rights group, has asked the PGA Tour to pull out of the tournament. The issue of race was already to the fore at this year’s Masters due to the debut of Lee Elder as an honorary starter alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Elder was the first Black player to tee off in the tournament in 1975 and his inclusion is widely seen as an attempt by the exclusive club to address past wrongs after failing to admit African American members for most of its history. Elder’s honor was announced during the nationwide reckoning on race following the killing of George Floyd. The trial of the police officer accused in his death is currently taking place in Minneapolis.
(AT&T, which owns CNN, is a longtime sponsor of the Masters).
CNN’s Chris Isidore and Fredreka Schouten contributed to this report.