People wait in line for early voting last October at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Ga. Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP, file

ATLANTA — Some of Georgia’s most prominent corporate leaders on Wednesday began to more forcefully criticize the state’s sweeping new election law, acknowledging the concerns of civil rights activists who say the measure threatens the democratic process.

The chief executives of Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola called the law “unacceptable,” opening an unusual rift with Republican leaders who championed the legislation and typically enjoy a cozy relationship with the state’s business community.

Business leaders in Georgia, home to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies, typically wield significant clout over the direction of the state’s politics and they were blamed by civil rights activists for not opposing the law before it was passed this month. The comments from Delta and Coca-Cola could add pressure on the state’s other marquee brands, including UPS and Home Depot, to take a stronger stand.

The Major League Baseball Players Association also has raised the idea of moving the summer All-Star game from the Atlanta Braves home stadium.

“Delta’s statement finally tells the truth – even if it’s late,” said Nse Ufot, who leads the New Georgia Project, which launched an ad campaign during the legislature’s deliberations urging the state’s major corporations to speak out.

After Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, signed the legislation into 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 in the legislation and there continues to be work ahead in this important effort.”


But chief executive Ed Bastian was much more blunt on Wednesday in a memo 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, alluding to former President Donald Trump’s claims that his loss was due to fraud. “Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights.”

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 and 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 have 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 legislative process or even after Kemp signed the bill. She also noted that her organization and others have 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.

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. It is part of a tide of GOP-sponsored election bills introduced in states across the country after Trump’s false assertions about the 2020 elections. Democrat Joe Biden won the presidential race in Georgia by about 12,000 votes out of almost 5 million cast, and Democrats won two Jan. 5 Senate runoffs to give the party control of the chamber on Capitol Hill.

Georgia officials, including Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican, vouched for the election’s accuracy even as they backed some changes that could make it harder for Georgians to cast absentee ballots, a method that more than one-fifth of the November electorate used.

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 limits where drop boxes can be placed and when they can be accessed. It also bans people from handing out food or water to voters waiting in line and allows the Republican-controlled 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 and voting rights groups have filed federal lawsuits challenging the law and are pressing high-profile businesses to speak up against the GOP’s strategy on voting rights nationally. Black activists have noted 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.

Voting rights groups have turned their focus to Washington, where Democrats are pushing a comprehensive federal overhaul of election law that could effectively override many changes being enacted in Georgia and considered in other GOP-run states. Advocates want corporate leaders such as Bastian to help.

“They’ve been out there trying to claim victory in Georgia, saying basically that this bill could have been worse,” said Mia Arreguin of Progress Georgia. “But this was never going to be a voter-friendly bill. 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 the Capitol Hill action in his memo, arguing federal legislation would “expand voting rights nationwide.” He noted that 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 any explicit position. Delta, he said, is “closely monitoring legislation.”

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