Delta, Coca-Cola forcefully condemn Georgia elections bill as activists ramp up pressure on corporations

Both companies' CEOs called the bill "unacceptable."

March 31, 2021, 4:59 PM

Facing mounting pressure, Delta Air Lines' and Coca-Cola's chief executives came out forcefully against Georgia's newly enacted elections bill Wednesday, both calling it "unacceptable" -- a stark difference from the companies' previous, more muted statements.

"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," CEO Ed Bastian said in a memo sent to all Delta employees worldwide. His first statement praised aspects of the new law, and said it "improved considerably during the legislative process."

Hours later, Coca-Cola's CEO joined Delta's in condemning the legislation, calling it a "step backwards" in an interview with CNBC.

"This legislation is wrong and needs to be remedied, and we will continue to advocate for it, both in private and now even more clearly in public," Quincy said. "The reality is many things are improved and done and achieved in private without having to take a public stand, but in this case, it does not work, clearly, and so we're being more forceful in our public position."

Quincy's rebuke went much further than another top Coca-Cola executive's did in a statement Monday. Coca-Cola did not take a public stance on the bill before it passed, but Monday's statement said the company was "disappointed in the outcome."

Voting-rights activists call for a boycott of Delta Air Lines during a protest at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, March 25, 2021.
Nicole Craine/The New York Times via Redux

Since Gov. Brian Kemp signed the Republican-sponsored election overhaul into law Thursday evening, voting rights activists from a broad coalition of more than 50 groups have ramped up their pressure campaign targeting Georgia-based businesses. Some leaders are even calling for boycotts.

LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter -- one of the coalition groups leading on this issue -- told ABC News Wednesday she was glad that Delta and Coca-Cola changed their stance, and while she said the work is harder now because the bill has passed, she believes these corporations have the "political muscle" to make a difference not just in Georgia, but nationwide.

"I'm hoping that they really do recognize ... that not coming out earlier was a missed opportunity, but that in fact they have an opportunity now," Brown said. "(They can) send a clear message that as a company, they adamantly stand against the bills in Georgia and all bills that seek to suppress the vote, and that they're going to use their political capital and leverage to actually prevent voter suppression and stand for democracy."

Delta and Coca-Cola's repositioning also comes as 72 Black executives penned an open letter, which ran as a full-page ad in Wednesday's New York Times, calling on corporate America to stand in public opposition to any legislation that would restrict voting access, and specifically, Black voters' access to the ballot.

"Make no mistake, we have seen this playbook before," the letter read. "As Black business leaders, we cannot sit silently in the face of this gathering threat to our nation's democratic values and allow the fundamental right of Americans, to cast their votes for whomever they choose, to be trampled upon yet again."

Before the Georgia bill passed, activists had called on major corporations based in the Peach State to publicly oppose the omnibus elections bills being considered by the General Assembly, which they said was directly aimed at suppressing Black voters and other historically disenfranchised communities. But most corporations did not, instead opting to issue general statements supporting fair, accessible and secure elections.

Delta and Coca-Cola received much of the post-signing blowback.

Wednesday morning, before the executives articulated clearer positions against the bill, Hannah Gebresilassie, a co-founder of #ProtectTheVoteGA, told ABC News that both companies' "watered-down statements" were "extremely disappointing."

"We expect them to stand up for people across this nation, when injustices are facing our lives," Gebresilassie said. "We want to see Coca-Cola and Delta put their money where their mouth is. Y'all better be helping pay for voter mobilization efforts in the next few months because we have a lot of educating to do with this bill being passed."

On Wednesday afternoon, a group of voters, Black church leaders and activists from Black Voters Matter, the New Georgia Project Action Fund and #ProtectTheVoteGA held a rally in front of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, whose president and CEO issued a statement of support for several provisions of the bill, but recognized that "concerns remain."

People protest outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta against a House bill on voting restrictions, March 25, 2021.
Nicole Craine/The New York Times via Redux

Despite the rain, the demonstrators showed up to demand accountability from business leaders on the issue of voting rights. Attendees handed out water to people walking in and out of the building, which under the new elections law volunteers can no longer do for voters waiting in sometimes hours-long lines.

Other provisions in the bill that activists have blasted include a shortened early voting period for runoffs, a ban on out-of-precinct voting until 5 p.m., limitations on ballot drop box accessibility and the new ability for voters to make an unlimited number of challenges to other voters' eligibility.

Some of the same Georgia corporations being targeted over the elections law responded stood united with the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, when activists and allies protested against racial injustice following George Floyd's death in police custody.

Both Coca-Cola and Delta came out in support of that racial reckoning. A "Black Lives Matter" flag was raised at Delta's headquarters. Coca-Cola made a racial equity commitment plan, and a link to that plan is still on the company's Twitter account.

"They need to understand how strong the correlation is, right? If you're saying Black lives matter, you also need to say that Black votes matter," Crystal Greer, the other co-founder of #ProtectTheVoteGA, told ABC News.

Brown said companies joining the movement that followed Floyd's death was a "positive move forward," but she said now, companies who did so need to make clear that it was not a "marketing exploitation opportunity."

"It is one thing to in the heat of the moment, to say that I stand and I acknowledge this is wrong (but) I think it also has to be more than transactional. It has to be a transformative change," Brown said. "What are their values as companies around racial justice and racial equity? What are they willing to give, but what are they willing to give up?"

ABC News' Mina Kaji contributed to this report.

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