The hope of Republicans involved, according to a half-dozen people familiar with the process, was to pull off a delicate political balancing act: satisfying voters who believe former president Donald Trump’s false claims that he lost the 2020 election because of rampant fraud — while heading off accusations of voter suppression from the left.
They failed on both counts. Since the law’s passage on March 25, Trump has lambasted Kemp and other state Republicans for not going far enough. And Democrats, voting rights activists and major corporations immediately swamped the law’s defenders with a tsunami of criticism, accusing them of making it harder for Georgians, particularly those of color, to cast their ballots.
Black church leaders called for boycotts of companies that didn’t oppose the measure. Major League Baseball announced it would move its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in protest. And numerous corporate leaders — including the CEO of Delta, which had been involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiations — rushed to publicly condemn the law, to the surprise of the governor and other top Republicans.
The conflagration in Georgia has spread into other states such as Texas, Florida, Michigan and Arizona, where both business interests and voting rights activists buoyed by newfound momentum are rethinking how to challenge GOP-backed voting measures.
On Saturday, more than 100 chief executives and corporate leaders took part in an online meeting to discuss ways to oppose state voting bills being considered across the country.
Advocates hope to capitalize on the moment by not only blocking voting restrictions being considered in the states, but also building support for federal legislation that would enshrine new voting rights nationally.
The fast-moving drama reveals just how powerful and combustible the issue of voting has become in U.S. politics — and how fraught it appears to be for Republicans contending with the legacy of Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election. Even as many of his supporters continue to embrace his relentless claims that the vote was stolen, those false accusations have also primed his opponents to vigorously challenge further efforts to undermine the vote.
“This is really a watershed moment,” said Joanna Lydgate, who leads the Voter Protection Program, a nonpartisan group. “We’ve all come to understand the consequences of lies and disinformation and conspiracy about voting.”
Voting access now looms as one of the defining battles between the parties as they prepare for the 2022 midterms. Some Republicans fear the issue will end up costing the GOP in the long run because, rather than change its messaging to appeal to the younger and minority Americans who voted in droves for President Biden, the party is embracing hurdles to voting in the name of a falsehood.
“Donald Trump’s 10 weeks of chaos have made Republicans vulnerable in every corner of this country,” said Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who has criticized Trump’s false claims that his narrow defeat in Georgia resulted from fraud. “The conversations around election reform were rooted in the misinformation that the former president and those around him spread, leaving a crater inside the Republican Party. All because they wanted to overturn a fair election that unfortunately didn’t turn out the way that we Republicans wanted it to.”
Georgia’s new 98-page voting law makes changes to nearly every aspect of the voting process, from the mailing of absentee ballot request forms to the composition of the State Election Board.
Kemp signed the bill on March 25, just hours after the General Assembly approved it on a party-line vote, emphasizing that it would expand early voting by requiring all counties to add one Saturday and giving them the option of adding up to two Sundays.
“Contrary to the hyperpartisan rhetoric you may have heard inside and outside this gold dome, the facts are that this new law will expand voting access in the Peach State,” Kemp said in the Georgia Capitol that evening.
Critics focused on other aspects of the bill, including language limiting the use of drop boxes for absentee voters when compared with last year’s emergency provisions to accommodate the coronavirus pandemic; requiring voters to provide an identification number when voting by mail; shortening the period when a voter can request a mail ballot; and prohibiting anyone from handing out food or water to those standing in line to vote.
All of it, voting rights advocates say, will make it harder for Georgians to vote and increase lines on Election Day, particularly in communities of color where access to identification cards is lower and voting lines are already longer on average than in Whiter areas.
The law also gives the General Assembly new power to control the State Election Board and to replace local election administrators.
“This is a very surgical, precise act that is seeking to take away just the smallest margin of error so that they can decide who wins and who loses elections,” James Woodall, the president of the Georgia NAACP, said on a call with reporters last week.
Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost the 2018 governor’s race to Kemp and is expected to run again in 2022, has led the charge against the law with her voting rights group, Fair Fight Action. “These are not men and women who are unclear about their motives and their effect,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “These bills are being promulgated across the country with the intended effect of blocking voters who are becoming inconvenient to the Republican Party: voters of color, young people and the poor.”
Biden chimed in, too, calling the measure “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” In an interview with ESPN on March 31, the president also declared his support for calls for MLB to move the All-Star Game.
Some criticism of the law was exaggerated or wrong.
Biden at one point said the law would reduce voting hours, an apparent reference to a proposal to curtail early-voting hours that was not included. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, one of two new Democratic senators representing Georgia, signed an email sent out by the advocacy group 3.14 Action after the law passed, which claimed it ended no-excuse mail voting and restricted early voting on the weekends — also early proposals that did not become law.
When pressed about Biden’s misstatement during a media briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki appeared to repeat his error by saying the law “makes early voting shorter.” Psaki also described other ways the law could curtail access and defended the president’s position, saying, “His view is that we need to make it easier and not harder to vote.”
A Warnock campaign spokesman said the senator signed off on his statement days before the law passed, when those provisions were still under consideration.
Alongside the heated rhetoric, the backlash grew quickly.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian penned a letter shortly after the bill’s passage calling it “unacceptable.” James Quincey, the CEO of Coca-Cola, said the legislation was “wrong” and “a step backward.” Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that his organization was pulling the All-Star Game from Atlanta, saying MLB “fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.”
On Monday, Apple, actor Will Smith and director Antoine Fuqua announced plans to move production of their new drama about slavery, “Emancipation,” out of the state.
Some Democrats, including Abrams, said they opposed talk of boycotts as well as the decision to pull the game, for fear of the economic impact on lower-wage workers. Officials in Cobb County, the Atlanta suburb that was set to host the game, estimated a likely loss of $100 million in revenue for restaurants, hotels and other local businesses.
For his part, Kemp blasted Democrats for mischaracterizing the law — and attacked the corporations that condemned it.
“Major League Baseball caved to the fears and lies of liberal activists,” Kemp said. “They ignored the facts of our new election integrity law and they ignored the consequences of their decision on our local community.”
Kemp and other Republicans were also furious at the Delta CEO. The company’s government affairs team and the Metro Atlanta Chamber, of which Bastian is chairman, had stayed in contact with lawmakers and Kemp’s office on the progress on the bill all along, according to the people familiar with the discussions. In an effort to punish the company, House members approved a measure to revoke a fuel-tax break that had been crafted for Delta, but the idea failed in the Senate.
“Honestly, it was a stab in the back,” one Republican aide said of the rebuke from Delta, which “blindsided” Kemp and lawmakers. The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said that Delta officials had conveyed their issues with some legislative proposals weeks before, that lawmakers and Kemp’s office had responded in good faith by adjusting those provisions, and that the Delta people had indicated they were satisfied.
A Delta spokesman declined to comment. But a person familiar with the Atlanta Chamber’s role said business leaders maintained even at the end that they opposed a surviving provision to curtail the use of drop boxes.
'I'm blaming Donald Trump'
Duncan, the lieutenant governor, said he does not blame Democrats for spurring outrage. “I’m blaming Donald Trump,” he said — the man, he added, who persuaded millions of Americans to believe, without evidence, that rampant fraud had occurred.
“I tried to warn many of my Republican colleagues of this as early as I could — that the narrative was going to be set by the original elements of the legislation,” said Duncan, who helped block the bill that would have revoked Delta’s fuel-tax break. “They have set the narrative that we are all going to have to be judged against. It doesn’t matter what the final version of this bill is.”
The narrative is now shaping the fight in other states, where GOP lawmakers have proposed similar restrictions, as well as some measures that go even further.
In some states, local business interests are hoping to defeat the most draconian proposals before they become law and avoid the kind of backlash — including calls for corporate boycotts — that has engulfed the Peach State.
“Texas is not Georgia, nor do we want to be,” said Chris Wallace, who heads the North Texas Commission, a business organization in the Dallas area. “The NTC is proud of our state’s diversity and believes security and accessibility for voting can be ensured simultaneously.”
Many of the proposals, made in the name of securing elections, target practices local election officials implemented last year to expand voting access during the coronavirus pandemic — particularly in Harris County, home of Houston, which has a sizable Black population.
Wallace said he is aware of work underway by multiple business groups to review legislation and possibly weigh in to try to avoid the public backlash — and business boycott — that unfolded in Georgia. He likened it to what happened in the past decade, when state legislatures began passing “bathroom bills” to prescribe public bathroom use according to sex assigned at birth.
When corporate boycotts ensued in Indiana, business leaders successfully thwarted similar efforts in other states. Wallace helped lead that effort in Texas.
“I don’t think anybody wants corporate America battling government,” Wallace said. “That’s not good for jobs, our economy or our state. I think a strong democracy ensures a strong economy and is good for business.”
The legislation’s most ardent supporters, however, are so far undeterred in claiming that the measures are necessary to make elections more secure and insisting that their constituents agree.
“Senate Bill 7 is about voter security, not about voter suppression,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said during a recent news conference, referring to one bill that would reduce early-voting hours and limit the number of voting machines used at some polling places. “I’m tired of the lies and the nest of liars who continue to repeat them.”
Momentum for voting rights
Voting rights advocates, meanwhile, see a chance to build on the momentum coming from Georgia. On Friday, the bipartisan nonprofit group Voter Protection Action brought together current and former state officials from both parties for a private conference call to discuss how to keep the spotlight on other states where similar measures are under consideration.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), who participated in the call, both said in subsequent interviews that they expect more private businesses — including sports teams — to weigh in in the coming weeks.
“What’s important is to try to stop them in their tracks, before they become law,” said Cooper, who is confident that his veto alone will block any voting restrictions in his state, including one seeking to give more power to the legislature over the State Board of Elections. “We were talking about ways to do that, and getting businesses to put pressure on legislators even before they take votes.”
Benson noted that more than 350 pieces of legislation that would restrict voter access have been introduced in 47 states, with many legislatures still in session and moving to pass these bills.
“Georgia is not a one-off,” Benson said. “Georgia is the first state. There’s Texas, Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Wyoming.”
In Michigan, while the Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, can veto legislation, lawmakers are considering gathering enough voter signatures to circumvent her vetoes, as allowed under the state’s constitution.
Benson said she expects that efforts by Republicans to punish business interests or blame them for boycotts will fuel the movement, not thwart it.
“Any effort to deter those in corporate America or the sports industry from speaking out — not only will that not be successful but it will spur more action to get engaged,” she said. “That’s exactly what we’re seeing in Texas.”
Democrats also hope Georgia’s drama will increase support for a far-reaching voting rights bill making its way through Congress that would prohibit many of the restrictions under consideration in the states. The For the People Act would guarantee no-excuse mail voting and at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections, require states to use their government records to automatically register citizens to vote, restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences, and mandate the use of paper ballots.
The bill, which would also overhaul campaign finance laws and eliminate partisan redistricting, passed the House in early March and is working its way through the Senate, with the Rules and Administration Committee expected to advance it to the floor this month, aides said.
“We’re indexing all of the different strategies being proposed around the country and those that are actually being adopted and then testing them against the bill to see if we address them,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), one of the federal bill’s leading proponents. “In other words, the whole vision is, to the degree that the ability of Americans to access the ballot box has been attacked, have we provided an appropriate protection for citizens? And so we’re reexamining every aspect of the bill to make sure that we do defend the ballot box for everyone.”
Two major obstacles stand in the way of Senate passage. First is the chamber’s filibuster rule, which requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass most legislation. No Republicans in the 50-50 chamber have said they support the bill.
The other is Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who has said on numerous occasions that he opposes changing the filibuster rule, and who also has raised concerns about pushing through a partisan elections bill.
In a lengthy March 25 statement, Manchin endorsed key aspects of the For the People Act, including guaranteeing access to the polls before Election Day, beefing up election security and implementing new campaign finance rules.
Manchin has not commented directly on the Georgia voting law, and his statement was silent on more-controversial aspects of the federal bill, such as its creation of a public financing system for congressional candidates and its mandate for nonpartisan House redistricting commissions.
Some advocates fear that time is slipping away, with elections officials across the country warning that preparations for the midterm congressional elections are already underway. Public attention on the restrictive voting laws in Georgia and other states could fade in the coming months.
“If you don’t apply the new voting rules to the 2022 elections, you’re going to have the potential for major voter suppression all across the country,” said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for tougher campaign finance rules. “There’s absolutely no reason to believe that Senate Republicans are interested in or will engage in a bipartisan bill. If that’s the case, this is going to come down to what 50 Senate Democrats decide to do.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Joanna Lydgate as the leader of the Voter Protection Project. She leads the Voter Protection Program.
Tyler Pager and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.