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Georgia’s New Voter Suppression Law and Corporate Support

Georgia-based companies have gotten backlash from voting advocates for their silence on new regressive legislation. As history shows, it’s working.

Something’s rotten in Geor­gia, and it’s not the peaches: Gov. Brian Kemp just signed into law a regress­ive omni­bus bill contain­ing a number of provi­sions that will make voting harder. This is the law that infam­ously makes it a crime to provide food or drink to anyone wait­ing in line to vote — and Black voters will likely suffer dispro­por­tion­ately because poll clos­ures in predom­in­antly Black communit­ies have led to hours-long lines. In response, voting rights activ­ists — such as members of the New Geor­gia Project and other groups — have been call­ing out corpor­a­tions that made polit­ical contri­bu­tions to the Repub­lican lawmakers.

Coca-Cola, for instance, has been the target of plenty of back­lash from voting advoc­ates, in part because it’s one of the biggest compan­ies based in Geor­gia. But Coca-Cola also made polit­ical contri­bu­tions to the very politi­cians who wrote, passed, and signed this bill into law. For example, accord­ing to Follow the Money, Coca-Cola gave to Brian Kemp’s gubernat­orial campaign in 2018. Other corpor­ate donors to Governor Kemp included SunTrust BankPhilip Morris USAKoch Indus­triesBlue Cross Blue Shield of Geor­giaHome DepotDelta Airlines, and Pfizer

Repub­lican State Rep. Barry Flem­ing, who authored some of the Geor­gia legis­la­tion, also received corpor­ate dona­tions from compan­ies includ­ing United Health Group, Coca-Cola, Philip Morris USA, Comcast, Walmart, Allstate Insur­ance, AT&T, Publix, SunTrust Bank, Geor­gia-Pacific, General Motors, and Koch Indus­tries.

This stra­tegic focus on the corpor­ate back­ers of Repub­lican lawmakers has already had an impact: 72 current and former Black exec­ut­ives from a wide range of compan­ies have all condemned the new Geor­gia law. This includes Kenneth Chenault, a former CEO of Amer­ican Express; Kenneth Frazier, the chief exec­ut­ive of Merck; Roger Ferguson Jr., the chief exec­ut­ive of TIAA; Raymond McGuire, a former exec­ut­ive at Citig­roup; Ursula Burns, a former chief exec­ut­ive of Xerox; and Richard Parsons, a former chair­man of Citig­roup. Delta, another Geor­gia-based company that initially offered a luke­warm endorse­ment of the bill, reversed course. CEO Ed Bastian wrote a memo to employ­ees, stat­ing, “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.”

Mean­while, the CEO of Coca-Cola, James Quincy, said, “This legis­la­tion is wrong, and needs to be remedied, and we will continue to advoc­ate for it both in private and in now even more clearly in public.”

This newfound respons­ive­ness on the part of these compan­ies may have been inspired, at least in part, from threats to boycott. This is noth­ing new: boycotts have histor­ic­ally been used by activ­ists of all polit­ical stripes in the United States. The success­ful Mont­gomery bus boycotts in the mid-1950s are now famous. But this is far from the only organ­ized absten­tion used to advance the cause of civil rights. It’s largely forgot­ten now, but Martin Luther King Jr. called for boycotts of compan­ies that had poor civil rights records in his final “Moun­tain Top” speech. In fact, King called for boycotts of compan­ies includ­ing Wonder Bread and, notably, Coca-Cola. “Our agenda calls for with­draw­ing economic support from you,” he said. “Go out and tell your neigh­bors not to buy Coca-Cola . . .”

The very next day, King was assas­sin­ated.

Now, 53 years later, his daugh­ter, Bernice A. King, is call­ing on Geor­gia corpor­a­tions to uphold the pledges they made in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. An open letter jointly penned by King, Al Vivian, and John-Miles Lewis, states that in the run-up to the omni­bus bill’s passage, “Corpor­a­tions did not go far enough to ensure every voting citizen had fair and equit­able access to the most basic of Amer­ican rights – the right to parti­cip­ate in the elect­oral process; the right to have a voice in our shared future. The fail­ure of corpor­ate lead­ers across our state to live up to their racial equity commit­ments made in the last year disreg­ards and disrespects our fath­ers’ tire­less work and jeop­ard­izes the soul of Geor­gia and the prom­ise of demo­cracy. . . . when the first test came chal­len­ging our corpor­a­tions to move from words to action, to stand on behalf of disen­fran­chised voters, there was shock­ing silence. . . . The lack of action is not only ethic­ally wrong and morally repre­hens­ible, it hurts the corpor­ate bottom line. Racism is bad for busi­ness.”

Now that the legis­lat­ive session in Geor­gia is over, the fight moves to the courts. So far three differ­ent lawsuits have chal­lenged the new regress­ive law. It remains to be seen how force­fully Geor­gia corpor­a­tions will aid (or oppose) this litig­a­tion. Will they put their money where their mouth is and end corpor­ate contri­bu­tions to the politi­cians who created this law? If not, they may face more sustained and robust boycotts that hit them where it hurts — although some, like Stacey Abrams, have noted that boycotts don’t just hurt compan­ies, they hurt the people who work for them too.

At the end, the letter writers express, corpor­a­tions should “[u]se your power to retire propa­gand­ized polit­ics in the state legis­latures and promote the passage of HR1 – For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act currently before the Congress.”

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.