Facing boycott threats over their earlier public neutrality on a new voting rights law in Georgia, Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola on Wednesday publicly slammed the state measure and vowed to work to ensure better ballot access.
Delta chief executive Ed Bastian called the new Georgia state law "unacceptable" in a memo to staff, while Coca-Cola chief James Quincey said in a broadcast interview the controversial measure was "a step backward."
The statements came as big companies in Georgia and beyond face pressure from civil rights leaders to fight against a wave of voting rights changes in myriad states that critics have likened to Jim Crow-era restrictions used to repress the political power of African Americans.
Georgia's new law comes after unprecedented turnout in the 2020 election due to increased use of early voting and vote-by-mail amid the coronavirus pandemic, in a state with a history of slavery and segregation where Black people have faced decades of attempts to inhibit their votes.
Major lobbies such as the Business Roundtable have broadly endorsed ballot access and initiatives to promote voting, but individual companies have largely tried to steer clear of thorny legislative debates on voting in an era of US political polarization.
Quincey said Coca-Cola had always opposed the new Georgia law.
"Many things are improved and done and achieved in private without having to take a public stand," he told CNBC. "But in this case, it has not worked, clearly, so we're being more forceful in our public position."
- Georgia not alone -
A group of 72 prominent Black executives -- including Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier and Mellody Hobson and John Rogers Jr, the co-chief executives of Ariel Investments -- released a public letter Wednesday calling for corporate America to oppose restrictive voting measures, US media reported.
The Georgia measure, signed into law last week by Republican Governor Brian Kemp, imposes voter identification requirements, limits the number of voting drop boxes and enacts other restrictions, such as forbidding volunteers from giving water bottles to voters who can be forced to wait in line for hours.
Voting rights advocates had sought support from big corporations in the large southern state, whose capital Atlanta is also home to the headquarters to Home Depot and UPS. But the companies had largely stayed publicly quiet throughout the bruising legislative debate.
Kemp, in an interview on CNBC Wednesday, said the measure had been misrepresented by opponents, noting that the law ensures more early voting days than many states and automatic voter registration when obtaining a driver's license.
But critics say measures such as restricting the access to voting drop boxes to business hours are designed to depress turnout, and make it difficult for those in underrepresented communities to vote.
Georgia was one of the most hotly contested states in the 2020 election, with President Joe Biden narrowly prevailing over Donald Trump, who claimed falsely that he lost Georgia due to voter fraud.
Legislators in 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote in response to the former president's "continued lies about voter fraud," according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive think tank.
- 'Based on a lie' -
After Kemp signed the bill into law, Delta released a statement last Friday that said it "engaged extensively" with lawmakers in both parties to improve the bill, while adding that "there continues to be work ahead" on the matter.
However, the company faced consumer criticism, with #BoycottDelta trending on Twitter over the weekend.
Bastian said Wednesday's announcement came after the company had more time to "fully understand" the bill and its effect on the Black community.
"The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections," Bastian said.
Nse Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, applauded Delta's shift, "even if it's late."
"Conversations with Black and Brown leaders must happen at all stages and all areas of decision-making, not after the damage is done," she wrote in a statement. "Here's the lesson: listen to Black and Brown people. Listen to young voters. Listen to new voters. We are the future, and our voices matter."