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Most Georgia companies try to skirt voting law controversy

By Matt Kempner – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kelly Yamanouchi – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Troy Warren #business-all #picks-all


 

Delta, Coca-Cola are outliers in criticizing Republican-backed overhaul.

Most major companies headquartered in Georgia are sticking to the sidelines publicly amid the growing uproar over the state’s new voting law.

The chief executives of Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola called the voting restrictions “unacceptable” on Wednesday. The criticism came nearly a week after Gov. Brian Kemp signed the legislation into law, and after calls by voting rights activists to boycott both companies for not doing enough to stop its passage.

But Home Depot, the biggest corporation in the state by revenue, haven’t passed public judgment. Neither have UPS, Aflac or Georgia Power parent Southern Company, perhaps the most politically powerful business when it comes to state politics. Or many other large companies based here.

And on Thursday, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce repeated its earlier statement commending Kemp and legislators for the voting changes.

Most local companies are trying to avoid the highly polarized debate. They are worried about antagonizing a GOP governor and legislature, and the Republican voters who support them. At the same time they don’t want to anger voting rights activists and Democratic voters. Both types of voter are consumers.

The general public usually doesn’t get to see how the sausage is being made by Corporate America, but they are now. Business messages are still evolving.

Big Business is navigating in an era of increased expectations from everyone around them: employees, customers, partners, activists. Large Georgia companies have built coalitions in the past over issues they saw as potential economic threats to the state, such as pushing to drop the stars and bars from the state flag and opposing “religious liberty” measures that critics saw as as discriminatory.

The state’s 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.

Critics, including Democrats, say the measures disenfranchise voters, particularly Black voters. Republicans say they make elections more secure while still ensuring access.

Some past business battles involved fairly concise bills that made it easy to take clear positions. The voting measures were anything but that.

Lawmakers submitted dozens of different bills on the subject during the legislative session. The behemoth that passed spanned 98 pages and more than 50 sections. Some voting activists pushed for measures to lock in voting flexibility, such as drop boxes, that had been only temporary steps tied to the pandemic.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, which is different from the Georgia Chamber, said it focused its efforts on “protecting no-excuse absentee voting, ballot drop-boxes, continuation of weekend voting and access to voter ID for all Georgians.”

Companies might have had limited power to influence the process, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. That’s because Republican legislators who supported the legislation know that many of their constituents believe the election was stolen, he said.

Three-fourths of Republicans believed there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, versus less than 5% of Democrats, according to a poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs.

With Democrats outnumbered in Georgia’s legislature, activists are trying “to use leverage of getting corporations to come into an issue which doesn’t directly affect their bottom line,” Bullock said.

Delta and Coke likely attracted attention of activists because they sell well-known products and “are potentially subject to pressure across the country,” Bullock said. “Other companies, if they weren’t in the line of fire, they just want to keep their heads down, perhaps.”

Before switching course Wednesday, Delta and Coke had joined other companies in issuing cautious statements that appeared to voice some support of the voting bill.

Companies face extra pressure as they approach the anniversary of nationwide protests over killings of African Americans by police officers. In the wake of those incidents, many CEOs pledged to become more active on issues of race and fairness.

Critics of Georgia’s new voting law say it will hurt Black voters the most. President Joe Biden called the legislation “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.”

Among Black executives around the country taking a stand against Georgia’s voting law were former American Express CEO Ken Chenault and Merck CEO Ken Frazier, who late last year pulled together CEOs and companies to create a million jobs for Black Americans over 10 years. Delta is a founding member of the effort. Chenault, who was CEO of AmEx until 2018, is also familiar with Delta CEO Ed Bastian through Delta’s close partnership with AmEx for its SkyMiles credit cards.

“When it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to vote, there can be no middle ground,” Chenault said on CNBC.

In remarks from a video message to Delta employees Tuesday reviewed by the AJC, Bastian acknowledged that many employees were ”disappointed, frustrated, and angry” the company did not take a stronger public stand against the legislation. “Unfortunately, the reality is that would have made it much harder to shape the legislation at all, and we would have lost a seat at the table,” he said.

After Delta’s Bastian harshly criticized the new voting law Wednesday, Republican lawmakers tried to eliminate a lucrative tax break for the airline in the final hours of the legislative session.

Legislation and politics don’t happen in a vacuum.

Company lobbyists try to keep intact years-long relationships with legislative leaders. And they have a raft of legislative issues they want — or want to avoid — every session. In addition to hot-button social issues or tax breaks, there are more mundane measures to keep business moving, such as steps this year to allow virtual shareholder meetings as well as digital signatures on surety bonds for building contractors after the pandemic-related state of emergency is over.

Larry Walker III, a Republican state senator from Perry who carried those last two measures as well as another on voter ID for absentee ballots, said he personally saw little business focus on the voting measures. Now, “some of these larger corporations are just bowing to public pressure and the Democratic narrative” of voter suppression tied to the changes, said Walker. “In my mind, they actually expand access to voting.”