© Reuters. American Express Chairman and CEO Chenault gestures during the White House summit on cybersecurity and consumer protection in Palo Alto
By David Shepardson and Uday Sampath Kumar
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Delta Air Lines (NYSE:) on Wednesday joined a bid by U.S. companies challenging the U.S. state of Georgia’s new voting restrictions, with chief executive Ed Bastian blasting the law signed last week as both “unacceptable” and “based on a lie.”
“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,” Bastian said in a memo.
“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,” said the CEO whose airline is based in Atlanta, the state capital.
Bastian’s memo, on the final day of the state legislative session, drew condemnation from Republican Governor Brian Kemp.
Kemp said the memo “stands in stark contrast to our conversations with the company, ignores the content of the new law, and unfortunately continues to spread the same false attacks being repeated by partisan activists.”
The statement was a course reversal for Delta, which had praised the law in a statement on Friday even as it acknowledged having some concerns. Critics of Delta questioned why it had not spoken out before the voting restrictions were signed into law.
Microsoft (NASDAQ:), which in February announced a major new investment in its Atlanta operations, joined the criticism.
Microsoft President Brad Smith said the new law had provisions that “unfairly restrict the rights of people to vote legally, securely, and safely.”
Dozens of Black executives, including Merck & Co Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Frazier, had earlier in the day called on their peers in U.S. companies to push back against wider restrictions on voting rights.
The campaign, led by Frazier and former American Express Co (NYSE:) CEO Kenneth Chenault, urged companies – so far largely silent on the Georgia law – to look past partisan appearances and publicly stand against it and similar voting restrictions being pursued in other states.
‘COMPANIES NEED TO TAKE A STAND’
“We’re calling on corporate America to publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit Americans’ ability to vote,” Chenault told Reuters.
“American companies need to take a stand.”
The Republican-backed Georgia law strengthened identification requirements for absentee ballots, shortened early voting periods for runoffs and made it a misdemeanor for members of the public to offer food and water to voters waiting in line.
Civil rights groups have launched legal fights against the new law, arguing that the measures are intended to make it harder for people – especially Black voters – to cast ballots.
Meanwhile, Delta and Atlanta-based Coca-Cola (NYSE:) Co were facing calls for boycotts from activists who said they need to do more to oppose the law.
Coca-Cola has said it was disappointed with the outcome in Georgia and would press for improvements to election laws, and Delta said it was talking with elected officials to express its views about a fair and secure election process.”The final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values,” Bastian wrote in the company memo on Wednesday.
Frazier, who is stepping down as head of Merck in June, has been outspoken on social and political issues before.
He was the first CEO to leave Republican former President Donald Trump’s American Manufacturing Council, saying he was taking a stand against intolerance and extremism, and called out racial inequities across U.S. society after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minnesota police officer.
A letter supporting Frazier and Chenault’s campaign was signed by 72 Black executives including former Xerox (NYSE:) CEO Ursula Burns, former Citigroup (NYSE:) chairman Richard Parsons (NYSE:) and Uber (NYSE:) Chief Legal Officer Tony West.