But the threat of boycotts and negative push-back from well-funded activist leaders, including those rooted in Atlanta’s minority community, helped seal the deal.
Some of Georgia’s most prominent corporate leaders on Wednesday began to more forcefully criticize the state’s sweeping new election law under pressure from the activist groups, whose efforts helped thrust the state into a political crossfire after Democrats succeeded in flipping several key races under highly suspicious circumstances.
EXCLUSIVE: Coca-Cola CEO says the restrictive Georgia voting law is “unacceptable…it is a step backward…”
Quincey also says “this legislation is wrong, and needs to be remedied, and we will continue to advocate for it both in private and in now even more clearly in public” pic.twitter.com/cdruteEiat
— CNBC Now (@CNBCnow) March 31, 2021
The business lobby in Georgia, home to 18 Fortune 500 companies, wields significant clout in state politics.
Civil rights activists blamed influential executives for not helping spike the new law, and there is rising pressure nationally on corporate titans to more explicitly oppose Republican efforts in states that could follow Georgia’s lead.
Delta’s and Coca-Cola’s latest declarations could push Georgia’s other marquee brands, including UPS and Home Depot, to take a stronger stand.
“Delta’s statement finally tells the truth—even if it’s late,” said Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project, which has launched an ad campaign targeting major corporations.
The group—founded by activist leaders Stacey Abrams—has faced ethics scandals and serious accusations of its own role in committing fraud by attempting to register ineligible votes and those who did not live in the state. The corporations have yet to denounce those violations, currently being investigated.
After Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the new law last week, Delta issued a statement promoting parts of the law such as expanded weekend voting, but said “we understand concerns remain over other provisions … and there continues to be work ahead in this important effort.”
Chief executive Ed Bastian was more blunt in a memo sent Wednesday to employees.
“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,” Bastian wrote. “Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights.”
There is considerable evidence to support the assertions of Trump and many others regarding widespread fraud, although the refusal by courts and investigative authorities to pursue it means it remains unclear precisely how greatly it may have impacted the results nationwide.
During candid conversations with Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, that were secretly recorded and leaked, Trump indicated that his campaign had identified nearly 144,000 ineligible votes and asked Raffensperger to investigate just a small fraction of those.
Biden’s certified victory in the state was by less than 12,000 after evidence appeared to show officials in Fulton County pulling out ballots of unverified ballots after closing down on election night.
Witnesses also reported countless other irregularities within the state. However, because Raffensperger had settled a lawsuit with Abrams and Democrat lawyers agreeing to a more relaxed standard—without consulting the state legislature—Republicans had little recourse to prevent the abuses.
They swiftly moved afterward to address the serious problems and ensure common-sense measures were enacted to verify that votes in the state were authentic.
Bastian said Delta “joined other major Atlanta corporations to work closely with elected officials from both parties, to try and remove some of the most egregious measures from the bill. We had some success in eliminating the most suppressive tactics that some had proposed.”
But, he said, “I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.”
Speaking later on CNBC, Coca-Cola chief executive James Quincey called the legislation a “step backward.”
“It does not promote principles we have stood for in Georgia around broad access to voting, around voter convenience, about ensuring election integrity,” he said. “This legislation is wrong and needs to be remedied.”
Kemp insisted the law was being misrepresented. He accused businesses of ignoring their role in its development.
“Throughout the legislative process, we spoke directly with Delta representatives numerous times,” the governor said in a statement. “Today’s statement … 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.”
The reaction wasn’t much friendlier from voting rights groups that fought the legislation and criticized corporate players for not trying to block it altogether.
Ufot chided Bastian for his timing and alluding to conversations “with leaders and employees in the Black community” late in the process. She also noted advocates’ pending demands that Delta and other companies no longer use their political action committees to back lawmakers who support voting restrictions.
Bastian’s memo did not address that matter. Quincey noted on CNBC that Coca-Cola, even before Georgia’s action, already had paused its PAC activity and would consider politicians’ position on voting rights as part of future contributions.
Separately Wednesday, dozens of black business executives from around the country, including Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier and former American Express chief executive Kenneth Chenault, released a joint letter in The New York Times urging corporate America to stand up forcefully on matters of racial justice.
Black activists, meanwhile, recall that many U.S. corporations took public stands last summer amid nationwide demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence.
Bishop Reginald Jackson, who presides over more than 400 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia, said too many corporate leaders have been “silent” on voting laws. He has called for his 90,000 parishioners to boycott Delta, Coca-Cola and other major brands.
“This is not just a Georgia issue or problem. It is a national problem that we believe puts our democracy at risk,” Jackson said.
Business analysts say the dynamics are challenging for corporations.
“Delta clearly felt a lot of heat for its previous statement. Delta’s problem now is credibility,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst in San Francisco. “Will people believe future Delta statements or actions regarding voting rights or social justice?”
Kemp signed the measure last Thursday, hours after a negotiated version cleared the state House and Senate in whirlwind votes.
The new law adds a photo ID requirement for voting absentee by mail, cuts the amount of time people have to request an absentee ballot and requires that drop boxes be placed only at officially supervised election sites after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg paid for boxes to be placed throughout Atlanta and other blue areas with no means of regulating them.
The bill also bans activist groups and others affiliated with partisan get-out-the-vote efforts from handing out food or water to voters waiting in line, although the local polling stations themselves may still provide water to those in line.
After issues surrounding the ethics and competence of some local election chiefs, it authorizes the State Election Board to remove and replace county election officials, while curtailing the power of the secretary of state as Georgia’s chief elections officer.
Republicans insist the changes are needed to restore voters’ confidence.
Civil rights groups have filed federal lawsuits seeking to overturn the Georgia law. They’ve otherwise turned their focus to Washington, where Democrats are pushing a controversial federal overhaul of election law.
The passage of the laws by Georgia and other states will help strengthen their hand in challenging the Democrat bill, which seeks to wrest control of election oversight from states in its HR/S1 bill. The US Constitution grants states the power to oversee elections.
But the financial leverage from companies that are able to use their clout to push the leftist agenda could be the most formidable force in undermining the GOP push to strengthen election integrity.
“They’ve been out there trying to claim victory in Georgia, saying basically that this bill could have been worse,” said Mia Arreguin of the far-left Progress Georgia.
“But this was never going to be a voter-friendly bill,” she claimed. “Now they can really do something about it” in Washington. “We aren’t watching what they say. We are watching what they do.”
Bastian nodded toward Capitol Hill action in his memo, declaring that federal proposals would “expand voting rights nationwide.”
He noted one bill is “named after the late Atlanta civil rights hero and Delta friend John Lewis,” the longtime Georgia congressman who died last year.
But Bastian stopped short of an explicit position. Delta, he wrote, is “closely monitoring legislation.”
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press