(Bloomberg) — Many U.S. companies loudly championed voter access in 2020 and recoiled at the stolen-election myth that fueled the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Now that Republican state lawmakers across the country are using the same debunked claims to advance unprecedented ballot restrictions, those businesses have fallen mostly silent.
The reluctance to take a public stand against the measures is starkest in corporate headquarters-rich Georgia, where Republican lawmakers are proposing dramatic voting curbs that would especially affect Black voters. Ballot-rights advocates are pushing companies — including Coca-Cola Co, Delta Airlines Inc., AFLAC Inc., Home Depot Inc., United Parcel Service Inc. and Southern Co. — to oppose the bills.
The activists, who helped deliver control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats, are also putting pressure on President Joe Biden to support an overhaul of federal election laws that would shield voters’ rights from statehouse Republican efforts to undermine them.
For weeks, the corporate response has been to issue anodyne statements extolling democracy and broad voter access, but calling for a balance with “election security” — effectively legitimizing the discredited voter-fraud allegations Republicans are using to justify making it harder to vote.
“The ultimate goal should be fair, secure elections where access to voting is broad-based and inclusive,” Coke said in its statement.
Corporate Georgia tiptoed closer to opposition this week, after an activist-funded campaign that included newspaper ads calling out companies by name. On Sunday, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce said it had “concern and opposition” to unspecified parts of the two broadest voter restriction bills. It reiterated the need for balance between broad access and security.
Voting advocates say it’s not enough. “It’s almost as bad as silence,” said Cliff Albright, a cofounder of Black Voters Matter in Atlanta. “It still accepts the premise that ‘security’ of elections are in doubt.”
Georgia is just one of the most dramatic examples of Republican efforts to curb voter access. Nationwide, lawmakers have filed 263 bills in 43 states that would make it harder to vote, with about 20 more bills expected to be added soon, said Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel for NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy project.
Legislatures are considering even more bills — about 700 — to ease voting, according to the center. But most of those are in solidly Democratic states, not in the swing states that decided the 2020 presidential election. Some are also in Republican-controlled states — including Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina — where they stand no chance.
GOP lawmakers are aiming at voting from all angles: absentee voting, ballot drop boxes, early voting and the authority of state and local elections officials to make adjustments in crises like the Covid-19 pandemic.
They describe their efforts as common-sense reforms needed to address the concerns of many Republican voters. Polls show they overwhelmingly support former President Donald Trump and still believe his false claims that the election was stolen through mail-in balloting and other efforts to expand voting last year.
“The way we begin to restore confidence in our voting system is to pass this bill,” Georgia state Representative Barry Fleming said this month, shortly before a party-line vote approved his bill to cut back weekend, early, provisional and absentee voting, among other changes.
The muted corporate response to such measures exposes as hollow a year of pro-democracy messaging from Georgia companies, said Nse Ufot, chief executive of the minority-voter advocacy group New Georgia Project, which has worked closely with the Atlanta business community.
“We just came out of Black History month, where all of these same corporations spent 28 days peppering us with their favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes,” she said.
Coke paid for massive billboards honoring the late Congressman and civil-rights icon John Lewis. Its Sprite brand also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on get-out-the-vote ads targeting people of color and the young.
“How valuable is their support for democracy when you have an opportunity to address an attack on democracy and you remain silent?” Ufot said. A united Georgia business lobby could stop the bills, she said, just as it did in 2016, when companies joined forces to defeat an anti-gay rights bill framed as one meant to protect religious liberty.
The state’s Republican legislators have been known to take revenge when crossed on issues popular with their base. In 2018, they stripped a $40 million fuel-tax break for Delta from a tax bill after Delta publicly ended a discount for NRA members.
Corporate America was one of the unexpected heroes of the 2020 election season. Coke, Home Depot, Delta and UPS joined Target, JP Morgan, Hewlett Packard, Patagonia and NBA franchises across the U.S. in throwing their clout and resources to make voting easier during the pandemic.
Moved by the spectacle of people queuing during the primaries — and by a sense that “democracy was fraying” — corporations stepped up, said Richard Eidlin, national policy director of Business for America, which organized corporate help for election officials in 28 states. They kicked in equipment and staff and bucked then-President Trump’s campaign to discredit mail-in voting. Later, they suspended campaign contributions to politicians who supported the vote-fraud myth that fueled the Capitol riot.
The election restrictions now moving in state legislatures are based on the same fiction. Many directly attack the voting alternatives that corporations supported last year.
The moves by Republicans — especially in states that Biden won in the 2020 presidential election and where Trump insisted without evidence that there was rampant fraud — reflect the influence Trump still holds with GOP voters.
In Georgia, the party’s lawmakers want to end no-excuse absentee voting that has been legal for 15 years and to reduce by half access to Sunday voting, which is mostly used in the Black community. In Texas, lawmakers want people with disabilities to prove they qualify as such if they want an absentee ballot. And in Arizona, one bill would scrap democracy altogether: allowing a simple majority of the legislature to overturn the state’s presidential election results.
So far, Georgia is the only state where voting advocates are aggressively pushing corporations to use their clout to stop the bills, said Sweren-Becker.
“I do think it’s a fair question to ask of businesses, who supported these state lawmakers, to use the influence and the speech that they have to make their values clear,” she said. “These are business that have often made statements in the past year about racial justice and democracy and elections. Those principles didn’t end in 2020.”