Voting restriction protesters draw Georgia’s big businesses into fray

Demonstrators staged a die-in outside the World of Coca-Cola March 15 in protest of voting restrictions in a new Georgia election law. The company issued a stronger criticism of the state's new voting law this week as boycott calls grew after the governor signed off on it. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Voting rights protesters gathered Monday outside the World of Coca-Cola in downtown Atlanta and some threatened a boycott if the beverage giant does not speak out more forcefully against sweeping voting restrictions being considered in the Georgia Legislature.

“If they don’t respect our rights, if they don’t respect our voice, if they don’t respect our votes, they do not get our dollars,” said Rep. Derrick Jackson, a Democrat from Tyrone. “I want to be absolutely clear, this is not a threat, and this is not something we can do over the weekend. I had a colleague on the other side of the aisle who said ‘Oh, y’all will just do that over the weekend.’ I’m a student of history. I said, in 2021, this is our Montgomery bus boycott. For those who don’t know, the Montgomery bus boycott was 381 days.”

The protest, following weeks of demonstrations outside the state Capitol, represents a new front in the fight over proposed voting legislation as activists seek to put pressure on some of Georgia’s biggest businesses.

At issue are House Bill 531 and Senate Bill 241. The Republican bills aimed at boosting the GOP base’s confidence in Georgia elections would reduce the opportunity to vote early and require photo identification for mail-in voting, among other new restrictions.

Opponents call nearly 80 election-related bills filed this year a voter suppression campaign aimed at minority voters after historic turnout among Black voters helped Democrats win statewide in November and January.

Coca-Cola said through a spokeswoman the company supports discussions with lawmakers to ensure any new legislation protects voter rights while keeping elections secure.

“We support efforts by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce to help facilitate a balanced approach to the elections bills that have been introduced in the Georgia Legislature this session,” said the company’s Ann Moore. “The ultimate goal should be fair, secure elections where access to voting is broad-based and inclusive.”

In a statement released Sunday, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce expressed “concern and opposition to provisions found in both HB 531 and SB 241 that restrict or diminish voter access,” without naming the specific provisions.

“As these two omnibus bills move through the legislative process, we will continue to work on ensuring both accessibility and security within our voting system,” the chamber said.

Over last summer, in the wake of nationwide social justice protests, Coca-Cola, like many other corporations, aired commercials highlighting accomplished African Americans and pledged support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Companies like ours must speak up as allies to the Black Lives Matter movement,” said chairman and CEO James Quincey. “We stand with those seeking justice and equality.”

Protesters Monday said they want companies like Coca-Cola to use their power to condemn the bills in the state Legislature. Coca-Cola, like other companies targeted by voting rights protesters, often donates to candidates of both major political parties including the sponsors of the two controversial bills and their Democratic critics.

“I think it’s a damn shame that you have these organizations with all this money pledging that they have the Black peoples’ back, their Black customers’ back after the summer, only to not be about what they’ve told us, not to be out here supporting us and not being just as angry as we are at the fact that voter suppression is being targeted at lower income and Black people,” said Tia Jackson, an activist at the protest. “I’m mad. We’re all mad.”

The Georgia NAACP and other civil rights groups took out a full page ad in Friday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution featuring contact information for the heads of Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Aflac, The Home Depot, UPS and Southern Company, urging readers to tell them to oppose the bills. 

At a separate protest outside the Capitol Monday, Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said he hopes the businesses will step up without the threat of a boycott.

“None of the organizations we’re collaborating with are calling for a boycott, all we’re asking for are our corporate partners who operate in the community with us to stand with us in the moment where democracy is literally under attack, where the right to vote is literally on the line,” he said. “We’re asking them to be vocal in their opposition, not in any general sense, to be very specific and say that this is an attack not just on democracy but the very life, the very humanity of our country.”

Speaking outside the Capitol, Rev. Jamal Bryant of Lithonia’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church focused his remarks on Delta Air Lines.

“We’ve got to remind Delta that you were the lead corporation that integrated Georgia for Blacks and whites to eat together, but now we want to vote together and change together and be educated together,” he said.

“We are fed up and we’re ready to fly, but we can’t do it by ourselves,” he added. “Delta, lead the way by not letting us down.”

In a statement, Delta said the company will continue to work with lawmakers on the issue.

“Delta’s shared values call on us to make our voices heard and be engaged members of our communities, of which voting is a vital part of that responsibility,” said spokeswoman Lisa Hanna. “Ensuring an election system that promotes broad voter participation, equal access to the polls, and fair, secure elections processes are critical to voter confidence and creates an environment that ensures everyone’s vote is counted.”

The Home Depot issued a similar statement.

You might find it hard to believe that a state’s voting laws would be in the hands of fizzy drink makers and plywood purveyors, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, but calling out corporate political donors has worked in the past.

In 2016, then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a religious freedom bill critics slammed as homophobic after massive backlash from business leaders threatening to pull investments.

“If you’re on the losing side of an issue, what you do is try to broaden the scope of the conflict,” Bullock said. “You do that, in this case, by bringing in other players, so it’s kind of like the little kid getting beaten up on the playground who says ‘I’m going to go get my big brother.’ Here we have Democratic groups who don’t have a majority in the Legislature and therefore can’t block the legislation, so they’re trying to seek powerful allies.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.