A corporate reckoning on voter suppression

In early March, Popular Information identified 22 major corporations that financially backed the sponsors of voter suppression legislation in Georgia. We asked each company whether they supported the legislation. None of the companies said they were opposed.

That report became a central piece of a campaign against the legislation by civil rights groups like the Georgia NAACP, the New Georgia Project, and Black Voters Matter. The coalition urged those companies — particularly those headquartered in Georgia such as Coca-Cola, Delta, UPS, Home Depot, and Aflac — to speak out against the legislation. While the companies stayed publicly neutral, the pressure campaign did result in the removal of some of the more egregious provisions, including eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, from the bill. 

But when Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed the bill into law on March 25, it still banned outdoor drop boxes, imposed a voter ID provision on absentee ballots, criminalized handing out water to voters waiting in line, and reduced opportunities for early voting during runoff elections. 

An initial statement from Delta, which had donated $41,600 to sponsors of Georgia's voter suppression bill, was seen as a fairly positive reaction to the new law:

Over the past several weeks, Delta engaged extensively with state elected officials in both parties to express our strong view that Georgia must have a fair and secure election process, with broad voter participation and equal access to the polls. The legislation signed this week improved considerably during the legislative process...Nonetheless, we understand concerns remain over other provisions in the legislation, and there continues to be work ahead in this important effort.

But the controversy did not end after the bill was signed. Delta's statement resulted in calls for a boycott on social media, where the hashtag #BoycottDelta was tweeted 38,000 times over the course of a few days. 

On Wednesday, six days after the bill's passage, Bastian issued a new statement where he declares the bill "unacceptable," counter to Delta's values, and "based on a lie."

I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values. The right to vote is sacred. It is fundamental to our democracy and those rights not only need to be protected, but easily facilitated in a safe and secure manner.

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.

The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections.

In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, Delta would not explicitly rule out future donations to Georgia legislators who promoted the bill. "DeltaPAC has robust processes for reviewing candidates before every contribution to ensure they align with both Delta’s position on priority aviation and business issues, and our values. Previous contributions do not mean DeltaPAC will contribute to a candidate in the future," a Delta spokesperson said. 

Delta isn't the only company that is adjusting its stance after the Georgia bill was signed into law. For the last week, Coca-Cola has also been the target of boycott threats. When contacted by Popular Information last month, Coca-Cola said it supported "a balanced approach to the elections bills that have been introduced in the Georgia Legislature this session." But in an appearance on CNBC on Wednesday, Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey called the bill "unacceptable" and "a step backward."

Quincey claimed the company "always opposed the legislation" but would now speak out against it "even more clearly." Pressed by the CNBC anchor if Coca-Cola would cut off funding to legislators who backed the bill, Quincey declined to make a commitment. 

Other companies that are now speaking out against the Georgia law include Microsoft, Citigroup, and Mercedes-Benz

While it is too late to stop Georgia's bill in the legislature (although several court cases are pending), there are equally audacious efforts to restrict voting underway in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and dozens of other states. If powerful corporations publicly oppose voter suppression bills in those states, it could make a difference. And they are under increasing pressure to get off the sidelines. 

Black executives unite

A group of 72 Black executives, lead by Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier and former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, published an open letter calling on Corporate America to speak up in opposition to legislation that restricts voting. The letter ran as a full-page ad in the New York Times:

As Black business leaders, we cannot sit silently in the face of this gathering threat to our nation’s democratic values and allow the fundamental right of Americans, to cast their votes for whomever they choose, to be trampled upon yet again…

The stakes for our democracy are too high to remain on the sidelines. Corporate America must support our nation’s fundamental democratic principles and marshal its collective influence to ensure fairness and equity for all. 

If we are to build “a more perfect union,” we must stand united against those who seek to employ unjust and undemocratic laws in order to divide us and thwart the will of the people. Corporate America should publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit Americans’ ability to vote. When it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to vote, there can be no middle ground.

“There is no middle ground here,” Chenault told the New York Times. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.” 

Frazier admitted he was not focused enough on the issue prior to the passage of legislation in Georgia. Frazier says his goal now is to prevent similar legislation from passing elsewhere. “The Georgia legislature was the first one. If corporate America doesn’t stand up, we’ll get these laws passed in many places in this country," he said.

Chenault questioned why the corporate community was willing to speak out on LGBTQ rights, but not voting rights.

You had 60 major companies — Amazon, Google, American Airlines — that signed on to the statement that states a very clear opposition to harmful legislation aimed at restricting the access of LGBTQ people in society. So, you know, it is bizarre that we don’t have companies standing up to this.

Their efforts seem to already be having an impact. Following the publication of the letter, top executives from Google, BlackRock, Cisco, and JPMorgan Chase also issued statements opposing legislation to restrict voting.