Compared with their swift responses to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January, America’s corporate leaders seemed hesitant at first to take a stand over the growing political fracas over voting rights. Even those who made declarations in favor of protecting the right to vote tended to be hazy in their language. A statement by the Coca-Cola Co., for example, “sounded as though of team of executives worked long and hard to make certain their comments were undecipherable,” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote early last week. Was the Fortune 500 hoping to sit this one out?
Yet in a remarkable series of events that unfolded in just days, corporations came off the sidelines last week like athletes in a bench-clearing brawl. In particular, they were provoked by Georgia’s new elections law, passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature on March 25, which contains a host of provisions that Democrats and voting-rights activists say will have a disproportionate impact on Black voters. Two Atlanta-based corporations, Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, found clarity after coming under increasing heat from activists, customers, and dozens of prominent Black business leaders. Late one night last week, a reportedly sleepless Delta CEO Ed Bastian drafted a fiery memo of his own, which he sent to employees the next morning: “I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.” He added: “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.” Hours later, Coke CEO James Quincey issued a statement using similar language: “I want to be crystal clear,” he wrote. “The Coca-Cola Co. does not support this legislation, as it makes it harder for people to vote, not easier.”
By week’s end, nearly 200 companies had signed onto a statement strongly criticizing not just the Georgia law but the wave of similar Republican proposals across the U.S. “There are hundreds of bills threatening to make voting more difficult in dozens of states nationwide,” said the statement, organized by Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group of businesses focused on voter participation. The statement was signed by a Who’s Who of Corporate America, including Dow, HP, Salesforce, ViacomCBS, Twitter and Under Armour.
Then the situation escalated from words to deeds: Major League Baseball took the dramatic step of relocating the 2021 All-Star Game away from the Braves’ home field in suburban Atlanta. In a statement, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the after consulting with many stakeholders, he “decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport” would be to relocate the event. “Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.” While the move might have been expected from major-league basketball or football, which have been increasingly progressive on social issues, the protest from America’s Pastime seemed like a watershed moment.
The move drew sharp rebukes from Republicans, including a culture-war salvo from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp that signaled a long battle ahead: “Today, Major League Baseball caved to fear, political opportunism and liberal lies,” he said in a statement. “Georgians–and all Americans–should fully understand what the MLB’s knee-jerk decision means: cancel culture and woke political activists are coming for every aspect of your life, sports included.”
The voting-rights fight is the latest turn in a historical realignment of business and political parties. Traditionally, big corporations have stayed out of the political arena unless the issues directly affected their bottom line. In the case of regulation and taxes, corporate interests mostly aligned with Republican and libertarian policies. But in recent years, corporate leaders have found themselves compelled to take stands on a growing list of issues that affected their employees, customers and communities: LGBTQ rights, gun control, climate change, and racial justice. As President Trump led the GOP into a deepening and divisive culture war, corporate leaders found they couldn’t go along without betraying their diverse stakeholders and their professed corporate values. “Republicans and corporate America are on the outs,” wrote NBC News political reporter Allan Smith.
A Different Kind of Fight
The battle over voting rights, however, is notably different from the earlier flash points. “An issue that both political parties see as a priority is not easily addressed with statements of solidarity and donations,” wrote New York Times reporter David Gelles. “Taking a stand on voting rights legislation thrusts companies into partisan politics and pits them against Republicans who have proven willing to raise taxes and enact onerous regulations on companies that cross them politically.” That point was demonstrated quickly in this case when the Georgia House of Representatives voted to revoke Delta’s state-tax break on jet-fuel purchases, a provision reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars annually. While the legislative session expired before the state senate could pass the bill into law, the threat was registered.
If the polarization is greater and the stakes are higher over this issue, is this fight worth it for Corporate America? Harvard Business School professor Rebecca Henderson, author of Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, makes the case that business can’t take democracy for granted and that business leaders need to speak up on issues like voting rights. Without good government, she argues, corporations wouldn’t be able to rely on free and fair markets, public infrastructure, and the other conditions they need in order to thrive. As she told From Day One via email last week: “Free markets need free politics!”
The Battle Moves to Texas and Beyond
In the aftermath of President Trump’s defeat, Republicans launched a campaign to change voting laws on a state-by-state basis. Legislatures in 47 states have introduced 361 bills that include voting restrictions as of March 24, according to research by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s Law School. While the rationale for the proposed laws is the Trump-inspired claim of election fraud, no systemic or substantial cases have been found. The real purpose of the blizzard of election bills, as Democrats have widely alleged and some Republicans have acknowledged, is to suppress the votes of people who tend to vote Democratic, notably people of color. While election analysts have argued that voter suppression is self-defeating for Republicans, the party generally fears that America’s demographic trend toward diversity is a long-term threat.
Democrats hope to supercede the state-by-state battle with a sweeping voting-rights law at the federal level, known as the For the People Act, that would set a national floor for ballot access, defang many voting restrictions imposed by the GOP, among other measures. However, since passage is by no means assured given the razor-thin Democratic edge in the Senate, the individual battles in the statehouses will be waged as a parallel campaign.
With the Georgia law decided, the spotlight has shifted quickly to Texas, the home state of 50 companies in the Fortune 500. As of late March, dozens of bills proposing election-law changes have been introduced in the state legislature, including restrictions on early voting, drive-through voting, and absentee ballots. To get the attention of corporations, activists have launched protests, including at AT&T’s Dallas headquarters.
Texas-based corporate leaders, seeing the criticism leveled at Georgia corporations for failing to speak out strongly until the Georgia law was a done deal, have been more pro-active in their comments. In a tweet, Dell CEO Michael Dell said that “governments should ensure citizens have their voices heard” and that one of the Texas bills, House Bill 6, “does the opposite.” American Airlines said in a statement: “We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it. As a Texas-based business, we must stand up for the rights of our team members and customers who call Texas home, and honor the sacrifices made by generation of Americans to protect and expand the right to vote.”
Corporate leaders in other states spoke out against voting restrictions as well, including tech giants Amazon and Google, providing a sense of safety in numbers. But the fight will not be easy, given the potential economic impact of boycotts and other retaliation by either side. Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game from Georgia will cost the state $100 million in economic activity, a tourism official estimated. Even Georgia’s prominent voting-rights advocates acknowledged the sacrifice. “I can’t say that I like it, but I certainly understand it, and it is really probably the first of many boycotts of our state to come,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN. The Georgia law, she added, “is a horrible example for the rest of the country and people are going to show us exactly how they feel by keeping their dollars out of this state.”
For CEOs, last week was a heads up that voting rights is yet another issue they can’t avoid. “If people feel like it’s a been a week of discomfort and uncertainty, it should be, and it needs to be,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has been urging companies to get involved. They need to pay as much attention to issues that affect Black Americans, she says, as they do to those affecting their other stakeholders. “Corporations have to figure out who they are in this moment.”
Steve Koepp is a co-founder of From Day One. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time