Coke, Delta oppose Georgia’s ‘unacceptable’ voting law

Gov. Kemp says airline statement ‘false’ attack, ignores law’s content
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian speaks during profit sharing event at Delta TechOps in Atlanta, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian speaks during profit sharing event at Delta TechOps in Atlanta, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The chief executives of two of Georgia’s biggest corporations sharply criticized the state’s voting restrictions, reversing weeks of milder statements about the new election law pushed through the Legislature by Republican lawmakers.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said in a memo to employees Wednesday that the law was “unacceptable” and “based on a lie” of widespread fraud in last November’s election. Hours later, Coca-Cola’s CEO also pronounced the measure “unacceptable.”

The statements came as Georgia companies faced growing threats of boycotts from voting rights advocates who say local corporations should have done more to oppose the legislation before it was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp last week. Tens of thousands of social media posts carrying the hashtags #BoycottDelta, #BoycottDeltaAirlines and #BoycottCocaCola proliferated on Twitter in recent days.

The CEOs’ comments triggered threats of backlash from Republican legislators who embraced the contentious election overhaul as a necessary measure to restore confidence.

Kemp and other GOP leaders say they were caught off guard by the opposition, and the Georgia House retaliated by narrowly voting to end a lucrative tax break on jet fuel during the final, frenzied day of the legislative session. The measure never came up for a final vote in the Senate, where leaders are more lukewarm on overtly punishing Delta.

“They like our public policy when we’re doing things that benefit them,” said House Speaker David Ralston, adding: “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand. You got to keep that in mind sometimes.”

Dozens of top Black executives from across the country also said the new law curbed democracy. Tech giant Microsoft, which is planning a major investment in Atlanta, said the changes “unfairly restrict” voter rights.

Other critics of the legislation, meanwhile, asked why companies waited until now to openly criticize it.

In his memo, Bastian said the new voting restrictions will make it harder for underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect representatives in the state.

“I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values,” Bastian wrote.

James Quincey, Coca-Cola’s chief executive, appeared on CNBC later Wednesday to call the legislation “wrong” and urge lawmakers to revisit it.

“This legislation is unacceptable. It’s a step backwards and it does not promote principles we have stood for in Georgia around broad access to voting, around voter convenience, about ensuring election integrity,” said Quincey.

Kemp said that at “no point” did Delta raise objections with his office about some of the controversial provisions in the measure before he signed it into law.

“Today’s statement by Delta CEO Ed Bastian 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,” said the first-term Republican.

Kemp later appeared on CNBC to respond more broadly to corporate opposition.

“I would encourage these CEOs to look at other states they’re doing business in and compare the facts to what’s happening in Georgia,” he said. “If they want to have a debate about the merits, the facts, of the bill then we should do that.”

The state’s far-ranging new election law includes a new ID requirement for mail-in votes, limits the use of ballot drop boxes and gives the Republican-controlled Legislature more power over local elections officials. It also bans volunteers from handing out food and water to voters waiting in lines.

More than 70 top Black executives from across the U.S. called on corporate America to publicly oppose any legislation limiting Americans’ right to vote. In a full-page ad placed in The New York Times, Merck & Co. CEO Kenneth Frazier, former American Express CEO Ken Chenault and the other executives described the Georgia law and measures being contemplated in other states as “undemocratic and un-American, and they are wrong.”

Georgia’s new law “has important provisions that unfairly restrict the rights of people to vote legally, securely, and safely,” Brad Smith, president of Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, wrote on a company blog Wednesday. “That’s why we voiced concern about this legislation even before it was passed,” added Smith, who also highlighted Microsoft’s recently announced plans to create one of its largest U.S. hubs in Atlanta.

Kemp and other supporters say the overhaul will increase confidence in Georgia’s voting system after then-President Donald Trump falsely claimed he had won the election. Election officials, including Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, say there’s no evidence of widespread fraud. Multiple recounts verified the results, and legal challenges went nowhere.

Left-leaning organizations have filed three separate lawsuits asking federal judges to declare the law an unconstitutional violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Nse Ufot, of the New Georgia Project voting registration group, called on Delta to “use your power and influence” to advocate for a federal elections law that would pre-empt the Georgia measure.

Local companies and the Metro Atlanta Chamber have tried to stress that they did lobby in hopes of reversing proposed changes to Georgia’s voting law.

”The metro Atlanta business community engaged from the moment this legislation was introduced through its final passage — including through meetings with state house leadership on both sides occurring as late as two days before signature,” a spokesman for the Metro Atlanta Chamber said Wednesday afternoon.

The local business chamber said it focused on “protecting no-excuse absentee voting, ballot drop-boxes, continuation of weekend voting and access to voter ID for all Georgians.” But the business organization, perhaps the most powerful in the state, didn’t publicly criticize the final law itself.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce last Thursday praised the legislation, saying “it moves Georgia forward in expanding access to the ballot box while ensuring we remain a secure state in which to cast a ballot.”

Many large companies in Georgia, including Home Depot, Aflac and Southern Company, had not publicly criticized or praised the state’s new voting laws as of Wednesday afternoon.

Delta and Coca-Cola earlier this month issued carefully worded statements calling for “fair” and “secure” elections but did not voice public opposition to the legislation. After the law was signed last week, Delta issued a statement Friday that appeared to defend it because it was less restrictive than earlier versions.

Quincey said on Wednesday that Coca-Cola has “always opposed” the legislation and will speak out more publicly now. And Bastian wrote that the company worked quietly “to try and remove some of the most egregious measures from the bill.”

“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,” Bastian wrote in the 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. Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights,” he added.

The stance could lead to some punishing retribution to Delta, which has been on the wrong side of the wrath of Georgia Republicans before.

The airline, Georgia’s largest private employer, enraged conservatives by ending a group discount for the National Rifle Association in 2018. That prompted then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to block a lucrative tax break for the airline. The $35 million annual incentive was later revived.

Delta has about 30,000 employees based in Georgia, most of whom live in metro Atlanta, which voted Democratic in the last elections. State Rep. David Wilkerson, one of the House’s top Democrats, warned lawmakers not to try to exact revenge.

“It is purely retaliation for the business community speaking out on a bill everyone feels is Jim Crow 2.0,” said Wilkerson, D-Austell.