After watching the fallout from the new Georgia voting law passed two weeks ago, I’ve come to five conclusions.
-The right to vote shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but sadly has become one.
-The new law isn’t about election integrity, it’s meant to suppress voting.
-The law has set off a chain reaction that continues to this day.
-The consequences here are changing the relationship between politics (mostly the GOP) and business.
-And in all this there is nuance and a good many twists to the story.
Used to be that if you ran a business in America you’d stay as far away as possible from politics, (unless you sold George McGovern T-shirts or some such.) The math was simple. Take a stand and potentially lose 40% to 60% of your customers. So most businesspeople when asked a question about politics kept mum, even when they felt strongly about an issue.
We accepted this choice of money over principles because as customers, employees or shareholders while we might not agree with someone's politics, we just wanted the business relationship and knowing someone’s politics might make things awkward, inconvenient or uncomfortable.
But this has been changing in recent years, and now taken to another level with the Georgia voting law, the fallout of which has rippled from Fortune 500 companies and prominent executives to Major League Baseball and golf, as well as politics in Texas, Colorado, Kentucky and beyond.
To get into this let me take you through what’s transpired over the past two-plus weeks because it’s historic but also a bit convoluted.
Let’s start with the new Georgia law itself, the 98-page "Election Integrity Act of 2021," signed on Thursday, March 25. Charges that the law amounted to nothing less than voter suppression, particularly of Black voters, came fast and furious. In fact the bill, (which started off as a two-page measure ballooned to its current omnibus octopus), was watered down to a degree to remove what critics considered to be its most egregious features—such as a ban on Sunday voting, something of an after-church tradition amongst Black voters. Activists quickly filed lawsuits challenging the bill and President Biden lashed out as well.
Business leaders spoke out too, with more likely to come. Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is holding a CEO confab today, which the executives requested, to organize resistance to the bill and others like it, (more on that later.)
The Georgia GOP, including Gov. Brian Kemp, say the new law improves the state’s voting process. But clearly that is not the intention. The intention is to make voting more difficult particularly for Black citizens, through new ID requirements, restricting drop-off boxes and by giving state (GOP) officials more power over elections. Be wary of those who cherry-pick specific points of voting laws in other states to show Georgia’s is not restrictive. The larger point is that, in toto, Georgia’s new law is a move to discourage not encourage voting.
Here’s the thing: Voting is an inalienable right in our country. Lawmakers should be making every effort to make voting easier for all Americans, not harder. Suppressing the right to vote, something so essential in our country, is nuts. What are they going to do next, deny people food and drink?
Oh wait, the new Georgia voting law does just that, right there in Section 33, beginning in line 1873 [emphasis mine]: “nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector…”
Only thing left is the air that we breathe.
“I'm a lifelong Republican,” says Dick Parsons, former Citigroup chairman who also served as Time Warner CEO. “I believe in a lot of things that the old Republican Party stood for. And I think we've kind of gone off course here.” Parsons, who spoke to Yahoo Finance for a special that will air on Monday, was one of 72 Black executives who signed a letter protesting the new law.
Parsons continued: “My party has sort of said, ‘Well, look, we got one or two choices, we can either battle for those votes going forward or we can just try and preclude them from showing up again. And I think the direction that has been taken, certainly in Georgia and in other states is, ‘let's not go out and battle for those votes. Let's just try and keep them from showing up.’ That's just flat wrong."
Immediately after the law passed, Georgia’s businesses were drawn into the fray, particularly two of the state’s biggest and most iconic companies, Delta Air Lines (DAL) (Georgia’s largest employer) and Coca-Cola (KO). And within a week, Delta and Coke found themselves in the remarkable and nearly unprecedented position of having boycotts called on them by both the political left and the political right over the same issue—but of course for different reasons.
Let me explain. When the law was first promulgated, Delta and Coca-Cola’s response was negative, but tepidly so. Some Black leaders called for a boycott of their products and services, turning up the heat on those companies. Days later, on March 31 to be exact, Parsons and the other Black business leaders ran a full-page ad in the New York Times, which carried an open letter strongly denouncing the new law and calling on “our colleagues in corporate America to join us in taking a non-partisan stand for equality and democracy.”
“To characterize this as a political statement by corporate America I think is inaccurate, it's not political,” Parsons says. “This is about defending democracy, defending one of the keystones that make this a unique country in the world. I mean, how can you sit by and, and watch people intentionally try and prevent or discourage other people from exercising their right to vote?”
The same day as the letter, both Coke CEO James Quincey and Delta CEO Ed Bastian went on CNBC and spoke forcefully against the bill, making in a sense, "to be clear, we were always against this," kind of statements. Critics on the left said that was too little too late. (Other big companies in Georgia most notably UPS (UPS) and Home Depot (HD) have not taken strong positions on the matter.)
“[Ed Bastian] was slow to action,” Khadijah Abdur-Rahman, Fulton County, Georgia Commissioner told Yahoo Finance this week. “I will resolve that he has made a statement, but he needs to do more. We need him to put his money where his mouth is. He needs to help us change the law.”
That was nothing like the fury though on the right, which came from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and local state politicians, as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul and former President Trump.
"It is finally time for Republicans and Conservatives to fight back...Boycott Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines…” Trump said in a statement. (We’ll get to baseball in a second.) But get this twist. Earlier this week, after Trump called for the boycott of Coke, it appeared the former president had a bottle of, guess what, on his desk. (It seems Trump hasn’t learned how to say "Pepsi please," yet.)
A week ago on Friday, April 2, another letter was released condemning the new law, this one signed by some 240 top executives at a wide range of companies including Dow Chemical (DOW), Cisco (CSCO), Etsy (ETSY) and Paypal (PYPL).
“When 72 Black executives published their powerful letter last Wednesday that really helped ignite more urgency behind this issue and brought an outpouring of support and interest from many member companies,” says Steven Levine, director at the Civic Alliance, the advocacy group which organized the letter. “We worked with many of them to draft a statement and we were proud to publish it. We’re deeply committed to remaining nonpartisan and to ensuring that all Americans have the freedom to vote will remain a priority for our companies.”
To be honest though, most Fortune 500 CEOs did not sign the letter. I asked Edith Cooper, a former Goldman Sachs (GS) executive, founder of professional development startup Medley, and member of the board at Slack (WORK) and Etsy, about that. “I think if you are going to be a company that's relevant now, going forward, it is not only appropriate, but it is expected for you as the leader of that organization, and as a company to have a point of view,” says Cooper, who signed the Black executives’ letter. “Silence, in effect, is a point of view. By not saying anything, is it reasonable to assume that you are comfortable with the legislation, I would suspect that for many of these largest organizations, that might not be the case, but we don't know."
“It's imperative for organizations to support the right thing, because ultimately, it will impact their bottom line, your employees will demand it, your customers will expect it,” Cooper continued. “And if you do not have a point of view that supports equality, and that represents justice and democracy, how will you be a company that's relevant going forward? And it all starts with the opportunity and the access to vote? It's fundamental.”
Let’s turn now to Senator Mitch McConnell, who’s of particular interest here as he thrust himself into the debate and in doing so opened himself up to charges of hypocrisy. Initially McConnell said: “Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order. Businesses must not use economic blackmail to spread disinformation and push bad ideas that citizens reject at the ballot box.”
Then he added: "My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics."
But on Wednesday he began walking it back saying that he didn’t speak so “artfully” and that when he was telling businesses to stay out of politics, he didn’t mean campaign contributions. (Oh no, not that!)
That follows, as an analysis by MarketWatch, noted that McConnell, an outspoken supporter of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision which allowed for corporate contributions, received more contributions from Fortune 500 company CEOs (almost $260,000) than any other Senator in 2020.
And then there’s McConnell v. FEC:
What McConnell is essentially saying, critics suggest, is that donations are OK for corporations, but taking political stands are not. Or as Trevor Noah put it: “That’s my Mitch right there! ... ‘Keep your mouth shut and hand over the money.’ That’s literally what bank robbers say.”
But get this twist, one of two CEOs who donated the most money to McConnell last year, at just over $21,000, according to MarketWatch, is none other than Ken Frazier of Merck, one of the 72 Black business leader signatories, (and in fact, one of eight of the executives who paid for the ad.)
That one leaves me wondering who’s biting which hand that’s feeding whom, to be perfectly honest.
“There’s been a fundamental change in our politics,” says Bruce Freed, the president of the Center for Political Accountability, which tracks corporate political donations. “It presents companies with an existential challenge. It’s not politics as usual anymore where they could give to both sides and have lines open to both sides.” Well, I guess we’ll see.
In any event, let’s move on to baseball, because the national pastime has become a focal point here as you probably know. Two days after the letter by the Black executives, Major League Baseball, not known for being political or progressive, took action in response to the new law. This from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred:
“Over the last week, we have engaged in thoughtful conversations with Clubs, former and current players, the Players Association, and The Players Alliance, among others, to listen to their views. I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft.”
Most Black leaders and Democrats supported MLB’s move. But get this twist, Georgia’s powerful Stacey Abrams, (along with some other local Black leaders), was opposed to MLB moving the game, on economic grounds. "Disappointed @MLB will move the All-Star Game, but proud of their stance on voting rights. GA GOP traded economic opportunity for suppression," Abrams wrote on Twitter. Parsons wasn’t adamant here. “Do I think MLB should have moved the game? I think that's something they have to determine within their own corporate culture and the values that they stand for.”
Meanwhile Republicans are vowing to retaliate against MLB:
(I think you mean "exemption," Congressman, not "exception," but we get your point.)
Then the baseball story spread to Texas. This past Monday afternoon, April 5, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he would not be throwing out the first pitch for the Texas Rangers game that afternoon. “I was looking forward to throwing out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers' home opening game until @MLB adopted what has turned out to be a false narrative about Georgia's election law reforms. It is shameful that America's pastime is being influenced by partisan politics,” the governor wrote in a tweet, where he also posted a letter to Rangers COO Neil Leibman.
The capacity crowd of 38,000 didn’t seem to mind, though the Rangers did lose to the Toronto Blue Jays, 6-2.
The next day MLB dropped this statement: “Major League Baseball announced today that the 2021 All-Star Game and its surrounding events will be hosted by the Colorado Rockies,” which also noted this: “The Los Angeles Dodgers remain the hosts of the 2022 All-Star Game, as previously announced. It will be the first Midsummer Classic at historic Dodger Stadium since 1980.”
Why not move the All-Star game to Texas? After all there had been speculation the game was coming soon to the Rangers’ home field and “Manfred has stated previously that the Midsummer Classic is on the docket for Globe Life Field in the near future,” according to Sports Illustrated. It goes back perhaps to a sentence in Gov. Abbott’s letter from the day before: “I will not participate in an event held by MLB, and the State will not seek to host the All-Star Game or any other MLB special events."
But get this twist, the principal owner of the Rangers, secretive Texas billionaire Ray C. Davis is a big donor to, you guessed it, the GOP, having given some $156,000 to Republicans in the 2016-2020 election cycle, according to FiveThirtyEight.
You wonder if this means MLB’s All-Star game is destined to be played only in blue or purple states from now on? I sure hope it hasn’t come to that. Can you imagine our country that way? Say with coffee shops catering to different political persuasions? Wait, gulp, that already exists.
“If we move more and more towards a polarized society, it’s natural that every system in the society becomes polarized,” says Nooshin Warren, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management. “A group of corporations will cater to one side, another group to the other side. My hope is that we don’t go there. I think our government, our corporations, our population — we all should not let this happen.”
CEOs are certainly concerned, some of whom will be hashing this out at Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s meeting. “A group of “business titans, every one a household name, in the middle of the Masters, has asked if I would convene a forum to discuss the voting rights issue,” Sonnenfeld says. (The Masters golf tournament held in Georgia of course has wrestled with how to respond to the law, but opted to play on.)
“We invited 120 CEOs over the past 50 hours and 87 have already accepted,” including Ken Frazier, Ken Chenault (former CEO of American Express), Brad Karp (chairman of Paul Weiss), and Rich Lesser (CEO of BCG).”
The purpose of the confab Sonnenfeld says is to 1) “set off an alarm of concern beyond Georgia for the business community’s universal outrage, 2) clarify what partisan voices have unfortunately and intentionally misstated in terms of the Georgia legislation itself and 3) generate options and positions on a state-by-state basis with Texas being the most immediate next threat. And to make sure Americans know this is premised on the big lie, that there was not any systematic election fraud.”
CEOs have decided that undermining democracy is not a partisan issue,” Sonnenfeld says. “They also believe it’s in the immediate interest of their shareholders, customers, employees, and communities because to a person they believe that politicians are creating these secretly conceived unneeded election restrictions, which are intended to divide the population. No public company CEO wants divided shareholders, angry communities, and distrustful finger pointing employees. They want social harmony. And sadly these legislative devices are created only cynically by some misguided political partisans to create destructive divides in American society.”
Scary stuff to vote suppressors everywhere.
“The Republican party, which since Eisenhower has tried to define itself as the party of big business, clearly is not,” Sonnenfeld added.
Unfortunately polarization still appears to be waxing, not waning. New York City mayoral candidate and former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire notes that we need to “be mindful that according to the Brennan Center, you have 47 states that today are entertaining over 300 pieces of legislation that could fall in line and what we're experiencing in Georgia.”
One place this is not occurring is McConnell’s home state of Kentucky. Just this Wednesday, in a bipartisan move, red-state Kentucky expanded voting rights. It should be noted that Kentucky “had some of the tightest voting laws in the country,” according to the New York Times, and Trump and McConnell won there easily in 2020. Still, isn’t it nice to see Democrats and Republicans work together on voting rights?
My goodness, yes it is.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on April 10, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer