Inside Corporate America’s Frantic Response to the Georgia Voting Law

On March 11, Delta Air Lines dedicated a building at its Atlanta headquarters to Andrew Young, the civil rights leader and former mayor. At the ceremony, Mr. Young spoke of the restrictive voting rights bill that Republicans were rushing through the Georgia state legislature. Then, after the speeches, Mr. Young’s daughter, Andrea, a prominent activist herself, cornered Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian.

“I told him how important it was to oppose this law,” she said.

For Mr. Bastian, it was an early warning that the issue of voting rights might soon ensnare Delta in another national dispute. Over the past five years, corporations have taken political stands like never before, often in response to the extreme policies of former President Donald J. Trump.

After Mr. Trump’s equivocating response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, Ken Frazier, the Black chief executive of Merck, resigned from a presidential advisory group, prompting dozens of other top executives to distance themselves from the president. Last year, after the killing of George Floyd, hundreds of companies expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

But for corporations, the dispute over voting rights is different. An issue that both political parties see as a priority is not easily addressed with statements of solidarity and donations. Taking a stand on voting rights legislation thrusts companies into partisan politics and pits them against Republicans who have proven willing to raise taxes and enact onerous regulations on companies that cross them politically.

Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star game from Atlanta in protest, and more than 100 other companies spoke out in defense of voting rights.

The groundswell of support suggests that the Black executives’ clarion call will have an impact in the months ahead, as Republican lawmakers in more than 40 states advance restrictive voting laws. But already, the backlash has been swift, with Mr. Trump calling for boycotts of companies opposing such laws, and Georgia lawmakers voting for new taxes on Delta.

eliminate a tax break for Delta, costing the company $50 million.

Yet as 2021 began and Mr. Bastian focused on his company’s recovery from the pandemic, an even more partisan issue loomed.

In February, civil rights activists began reaching out to Delta, flagging what they saw as problematic provisions in early drafts of the bill, including a ban on Sunday voting, and asking the company to use its clout and lobbying muscle to sway the debate.

Delta’s government affairs team shared some of those concerns, but decided to work behind the scenes, rather than go public. It was a calculated choice intended to avoid upsetting Republican lawmakers.

In early March, Delta lobbyists pushed David Ralston, the Republican head of the Georgia house, and aides to Gov. Brian Kemp to remove some far-reaching provisions in the bill.

followed the same script, refraining from criticizing the bill.

That passive approach infuriated activists. In mid-March, protesters staged a “die in” at Coca-Cola’s museum. Bishop Reginald Jackson, an influential Atlanta pastor, took to the streets with a bullhorn and called for a boycott of Coca-Cola. Days later, activists massed at the Delta terminal at the Atlanta airport and called on Mr. Bastian to use his clout to “kill the bill.” Still, Mr. Bastian declined to say anything publicly.

Two weeks to the day after Delta dedicated its building to Mr. Young, the law was passed. Some of the most restrictive provisions had been removed, but the law limits ballot access and makes it a crime to give water to people waiting in line to vote.

The fight in Georgia appeared to be over. Days after the law was passed though, a group of powerful Black executives frustrated by the results sprang into action. Soon, Atlanta companies were drawn back into the fight, and the controversy had spread to other corporations around the country.

spoke with the media. “There is no middle ground here,” Mr. Chenault told The Times. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”

“This was unprecedented,” Mr. Lewis said. “The African-American business community has never coalesced around a nonbusiness issue and issued a call to action to the broader corporate community.”

Mr. Bastian had been unable to sleep on Tuesday night after his call with Mr. Chenault, according to two people familiar with the matter. He had also been receiving a stream of emails about the law from Black Delta employees, who make up 21 percent of the company’s work force. Eventually, Mr. Bastian came to the conclusion that it was deeply problematic, the two people said.

accused Mr. Bastian of spreading “the same false attacks being repeated by partisan activists.” And Republicans in the Georgia house voted to strip Delta of a tax break, just as they did three years ago. “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand,” said Mr. Ralston, the house speaker.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida posted a video in which he called Delta and Coca-Cola “woke corporate hypocrites” and Mr. Trump joined the calls for a boycott of companies speaking out against the voting laws.

Companies that had taken a more cautious approach weren’t targeted the same way. UPS and Home Depot, big Atlanta employers, also faced early calls to oppose the Georgia law, but instead made unspecific commitments to voting rights.

declared their opposition to proposed voting legislation in that state. And on Friday, more than 170 companies signed a statement calling on elected officials around the country to refrain from enacting legislation that makes it harder for people to vote.

It was messy, but to many activists, it was progress. “Companies don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Stacey Abrams, who has worked for years to get out the Black vote in Georgia. “It’s going to take a national response by corporations to stop what happened in Georgia from happening in other states.”

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