Pressure mounts on corporations to denounce GOP voting bills

FILE - In this March 25, 2021, file photo African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Reginald Jackson announces a boycott of Coca-Cola Co. products outside the Georgia Capitol n Atlanta. Jackson says Coca-Cola and other large Georgia companies haven't done enough to oppose restrictive voting bills that Georgia lawmakers were debating as Jackson spoke (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)
FILE - In this March 25, 2021, file photo Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, second from right, leaves the Georgia State Capitol Building after he signed into law a sweeping Republican-sponsored overhaul of state elections that includes new restrictions on voting by mail and greater legislative control over how elections are run in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)
FILE - In this March 17, 2020, file photo, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp answers questions from reporters during a news conference following a COVID-19 Vaccine Roundtable meeting at Augusta University in Augusta, Ga. Kemp, a Republican, has blasted Major League Baseball for what he called a “knee-jerk decision” to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over the league’s objection to a sweeping new Georgia voting law that critics say is too restrictive. Kemp insists the laws critics have misconstrued what the law does. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2018, file photo, ground crews prepare the field at Sun Trust Park, now known as Truist Park, ahead of Game 3 of MLB baseball's National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta. Truist Park lost the 2021 All-Star Game on Friday, April 2, 2021, when Major League Baseball decided to move the game elsewhere over the league’s objection to Georgia’s sweeping new election law that critics say restricts voting rights. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)
FILE - In this July 14, 2020 file photo, a voter, right, shows her identification to a Harris County election clerk before voting, in Houston. Texas Republicans advanced a slate of proposed new voting restrictions Thursday, April 1, 2021, that would reduce options to cast ballots, limit polling hours and hand more power to partisan poll watchers. All those efforts are rolled into a single bill that cleared the GOP-controlled state Senate — a key marker in a campaign by Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, to impose new restrictive measures over elections in America's biggest red state. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

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Voting Bills-Corporate Pressure

FILE – In this March 25, 2021, file photo African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Reginald Jackson announces a boycott of Coca-Cola Co. products outside the Georgia Capitol n Atlanta. Jackson says Coca-Cola and other large Georgia companies haven’t done enough to oppose restrictive voting bills that Georgia lawmakers were debating as Jackson spoke (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)BILL BARROWSat, 3 April 2021, 5:14 am

ATLANTA (AP) — Liberal activists are stepping up calls for corporate America to denounce Republican efforts to tighten state voting laws, and businesses accustomed to cozy political relationships now find themselves in the middle of a growing partisan fight over voting rights.

Pressure is mounting on leading companies in Texas, Arizona and other states, particularly after Major League Baseball’s decision Friday to move the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta. A joint statement from executives at nearly 200 companies, including HP, Microsoft, PayPal, Target, Twitter, Uber and Under Armour, took aim at state legislation “threatening to make voting more difficult” and said “elections are not improved” when lawmakers impose new barriers to voting.

The outcry comes a week after Georgia Republicans enacted an overhaul of the state’s election law that critics argue is an attempt to suppress Democratic votes.

Other companies have, somewhat belatedly, joined the chorus of critics.

Delta Air Lines and The Coca-Cola Co., two of Georgia’s best-known brands, this past week called the new law “unacceptable,” although they had a hand in writing it. That only angered Republicans, including Gov. Brian Kemp and several U.S. senators, who accused the companies of cowering from unwarranted attacks from the left.

The fight has thrust corporate America into a place it often tries to avoid — the center of a partisan political fight. But under threat of boycott and bad publicity, business leaders are showing a new willingness to enter the fray on an issue not directly related to their bottom line, even if it means alienating Republican allies.

“We want to hold corporations accountable for how they show up when voting rights are under attack,” said Marc Banks, an NAACP spokesman. “Corporations have a part to play, because when they do show up and speak, people listen.”

Kemp said at a news conference Saturday that baseball “caved to fear and lies from liberal activists” and moving the game means ”cancel culture” is coming for American businesses. Kemp said state leaders worked in good faith with leaders in the business community on the legislation, including some of the same companies that have now “flip-flopped on this issue.” He added: “We shouldn’t apologize for making it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Civil rights groups have sued to block the new Georgia law, which was passed after Democrats flipped the once-reliably Republican state in an election that Donald Trump falsely claimed was rife with fraud. Some activists have called for consumer boycotts of Delta, Coca-Cola and others. They dismiss business leaders’ assertions that they helped water down the bill to ease earlier, more restrictive proposals; those leaders, they argue, should have tried to block the plan altogether.

In Texas, the NAACP, League of Women Voters and League of United Latin American Citizens, among other organizations, are urging corporations in the state to speak out against a slate of Republican-backed voting proposals. “Democracy is good for business,” the campaign says.

Nine organizations took out full-page ads in The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News, the state’s leading newspapers, urging corporate opposition to the plan. The Texas proposal would limit some early voting hours, bar counties from setting up drive-thru voting and prohibit local officials from proactively sending applications for mail ballots before voters request them.

Unlike their Georgia-based counterparts, American Airlines and Dell Technologies didn’t wait for the Texas measure to pass. “To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” American said in a statement.

Arizona, which Biden flipped from Trump in November, hasn’t seen high-profile corporate players engage yet. But 30-plus groups sent a joint letter to Allstate Insurance, CVS Health and Farmers’ Insurance, among others, urging their public opposition to proposed voting restrictions. Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona, a progressive group that signed the letter, said there’s been no response yet.

Other groups are demanding that corporations focus on Washington, where congressional Democrats are pushing measures intended to make it easier for Americans to vote, regardless of state laws. Among the changes, Democrats would enact automatic voter registration nationally and standardize access to early and mail voting.

Democrats also want to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that require the federal government to approve all election procedures in states and locales with a history of discrimination. The Supreme Court struck down those provisions, which applied to Georgia and Arizona, among other states, in 2013.

Corporate giants were mostly quiet when Trump falsely claimed he lost because of fraud. Business leaders largely maintained that caution as Republican state lawmakers used Trump’s lie to justify a flood of new bills to make it more cumbersome to vote.

The reticence was a stark contrast to how chambers of commerce reacted six years ago when Republican-run states pushed “religious freedom” measures. Indiana, under then-Gov. Mike Pence, the future vice president, saw immediate corporate backlash. After North Carolina passed a “bathroom bill” limiting LGBTQ rights in 2016, PayPal scuttled expansion plans there and the NBA moved its all-star game from Charlotte. An AP analysis in 2017 found the reaction would eventually cost North Carolina at least $3.76 billion in lost business.

Then, Georgia’s corporate lobbying groups — with Delta’s and Coca-Cola’s backing — took no such chances, speaking out forcefully against Georgia conservatives’ version of a “religious freedom” bill. Lawmakers passed it anyway but Kemp’s predecessor, Republican Nathan Deal, vetoed it amid the chamber outcry.

Today, Delta and Coca-Cola’s response to the Georgia voting fight is standing as a cautionary tale for other businesses.

Ed Bastian, the airline’s chief executive, initially released a statement noting the business lobby’s role in altering the bill as it moved through the General Assembly. Officials at the Atlanta Metro Chamber, where Bastian currently serves as president, detailed how corporate lobbyists spent weeks at the Capitol on mitigating provisions.

Some Georgia Republicans wanted to roll back the state’s no-excuse absentee voting law, end automatic voter registration and ban Sunday early voting used heavily by Black churches. They also wanted to require photocopies of state IDs to receive and submit absentee ballots, while banning “drop boxes” as ballot collection receptacles.

The final law preserved no-excuse absentee voting and automatic registration. The new ID requirement for absentee ballots allows a voter to write their state ID number, rather than produce a photocopy, and the legislature included funding for free state IDs. The law also codifies in-person early voting on weekends, although it allows counties to choose whether to be open for voting for up to two Sundays. And it made drop boxes of mail ballots a permanent fixture in Georgia, but limited the number.

Business leaders’ philosophy, according to Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, was “basically, Republicans are going to pass something, so they might as well try to keep from being awful.”

But by Wednesday, the same day 72 Black business executives published a letter in The New York Times urging corporate leaders to speak out, Bastian was more direct. He sent a companywide memo declaring the law “unacceptable” and “based on a lie” — though he didn’t mention Trump.

Big business’s mistake, Jordan said, was “thinking there was ever any version that wouldn’t end up like this.”

___

Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas; Acacia Coronado and Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas; and Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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