ATLANTA (AP) -- Some of Georgia's most prominent corporate leaders on Wednesday began to more forcefully criticize the state's sweeping new election law, acknowledging concerns of civil rights activists and Black business executives who say the measure targets non-white voters and threatens the democratic process.
The chief executives of Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola pivoted from earlier, more equivocal statements and called the law "unacceptable," opening an unusual rift with Republican leaders who championed the legislation and typically enjoy a cozy relationship with the state's business community.
The business lobby in Georgia, home to 18 Fortune 500 companies, wields significant clout in state politics. Civil rights activists blamed influential executives for not helping spike the new law that's become a focal point in the nationwide, partisan fight over voting rights, and there is rising pressure nationally on corporate titans to defend voting rights more explicitly and oppose Republican efforts in states that could follow Georgia's lead. Delta's and Coca-Cola's latest declarations could push Georgia's other marquee brands, including UPS and Home Depot, to take a stronger stand.
"Delta's statement finally tells the truth -- even if it's late," said Ns Ufot of the New Georgia Project, which has launched an ad campaign targeting major corporations.
After Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the new law last week, Delta issued a statement promoting parts of the law such as expanded weekend voting, but said "we understand concerns remain over other provisions ... and there continues to be work ahead in this important effort."
Chief executive Ed Bastian was more blunt in a memo sent Wednesday to employees.
"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," Bastian wrote, alluding to former President Donald Trump's false claims that he lost because of fraud. "Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights."
Bastian said Delta "joined other major Atlanta corporations to work closely with elected officials from both parties, to try and remove some of the most egregious measures from the bill. We had some success in eliminating the most suppressive tactics that some had proposed."
But, he said, "I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta's values."
Speaking later on CNBC, Coca-Cola chief executive James Quincey called the legislation a "step backward."
"It does not promote principles we have stood for in Georgia around broad access to voting, around voter convenience, about ensuring election integrity," he said. "This legislation is wrong and needs to be remedied."
Kemp insisted the law was being misrepresented. He accused businesses of ignoring their role in its development.
"Throughout the legislative process, we spoke directly with Delta representatives numerous times," the governor said in a statement. "Today's statement ... 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."
Republicans in the Georgia House added their disapproval later Wednesday, voting to strip Delta of a tax break worth tens of millions of dollars annually. The vote was rendered symbolic when the state Senate failed to take up the measure before adjourning its yearly session.
The reaction wasn't much friendlier from voting rights groups that fought the legislation and criticized corporate players for not trying to block it altogether.
Ufot chided Bastian for his timing and alluding to conversations "with leaders and employees in the Black community" late in the process. She also noted advocates' pending demands that Delta and other companies no longer use their political action committees to back lawmakers who support voting restrictions.
Bastian's memo did not address that matter. Quincey noted on CNBC that Coca-Cola, even before Georgia's action, already had paused its PAC activity and would consider politicians' position on voting rights as part of future contributions.
Also on Wednesday, dozens of Black business executives from around the country, including Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier and former American Express chief executive Kenneth Chenault, released a joint letter in The New York Times urging corporate America to stand up forcefully on matters of racial justice.
Black activists, meanwhile, recall that many U.S. corporations took public stands last summer amid nationwide demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence.
Bishop Reginald Jackson, who presides over more than 400 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia, said too many corporate leaders have been "silent" on voting laws. He has called for his 90,000 parishioners to boycott Delta, Coca-Cola and other major brands.
"This is not just a Georgia issue or problem. It is a national problem that we believe puts our democracy at risk," Jackson said.
Business analysts say the dynamics are challenging for corporations.
"Delta clearly felt a lot of heat for its previous statement. Delta's problem now is credibility," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst in San Francisco. "Will people believe future Delta statements or actions regarding voting rights or social justice?"
Kemp signed the measure last Thursday, hours after a negotiated version cleared the state House and Senate in whirlwind votes. It is part of a tide of GOP-sponsored election bills introduced in states across the country after Trump's false assertions about the 2020 elections. Democrat Joe Biden won the presidential race in Georgia by about 12,000 votes out of almost 5 million cast, and Democrats won two Jan. 5 Senate runoffs to give the party control of the chamber on Capitol Hill.
Georgia officials, including Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican, vouched for election's accuracy even as they backed some changes that could make it harder for Georgians to cast absentee ballots, a method that more than one-fifth of the November electorate used.
The new law adds a photo ID requirement for voting absentee by mail, cuts the amount of time people have to request an absentee ballot and limits where drop boxes can be placed and when they can be accessed. It also bans people from handing out food or water to voters waiting in line and allows the Republican-controlled State Election Board to remove and replace county election officials while curtailing the power of the secretary of state as Georgia's chief elections officer.
Republicans insist the changes are needed to restore voters' confidence.
Civil rights groups have filed federal lawsuits seeking to overturn the Georgia law. They've otherwise turned their focus to Washington, where Democrats are pushing a comprehensive federal overhaul of election law that could effectively override many changes being enacted in Georgia and considered elsewhere. Advocates want corporate leaders like Bastian and Quincey to help.
"They've been out there trying to claim victory in Georgia, saying basically that this bill could have been worse," said Mia Arreguin of Progress Georgia. "But this was never going to be a voter-friendly bill. Now they can really do something about it" in Washington. "We aren't watching what they say. We are watching what they do."
Bastian nodded toward Capitol Hill action in his memo, declaring that federal proposals would "expand voting rights nationwide." He noted one bill is "named after the late Atlanta civil rights hero and Delta friend John Lewis," the longtime Georgia congressman who died last year.
But Bastian stopped short of an explicit position. Delta, he wrote, is "closely monitoring legislation."