OPINION

Stacey Abrams: Corporate America must pick a side on voting rights, prevent a Georgia repeat

Leaving us behind with boycotts won’t save us. I ask you to bring your business to Georgia and, if you’re already here, stay and fight. Stay and vote.

Stacey Abrams
Opinion contributor

Boycotts work — when the target risks losing something highly valued and the pain becomes unbearable. As a Black person, a Southerner and an American, I respect and defend the right to boycott. The advancement of civil rights has relied heavily on economic boycotts. Our new restrictive voting law has brought calls to boycott Georgia corporations, and national voting rights allies with economic influence are considering avoiding Georgia entirely.

While the employees and customers of Georgia corporations face new obstacles to the ballot box, the business community's response has been mixed — ranging from growing condemnation to tacit approval. Across the country, nearly 200 companies have voiced their opposition to similar bills. Unfortunately, others continue to maintain a damning silence, hoping the furor will fade with time.

Be warned, though. Georgia is just one of the first in the orchestrated march of voting restrictions that Heritage Action and the Republican National Committee intend to secure in every state that will have them. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are191 bills that would restrict mail voting, 84 bills that would create new, more restrictive ID requirements, and three states that would make it more difficult for students to vote. 

Boycotts not necessary — yet

Sadly, Republicans in my home state have outperformed in the category of suppressive laws with the passage of Senate Bill 202: criminalizing handing out water, increasing unfounded challenges of voter eligibility that will no doubt lead to racial profiling and disenfranchisement, seizing power from election officials, limiting access to drop boxes, restricting provisions for mail ballots and more.

The impassioned (and understandable) response to the racist, classist bill that is now the law of Georgia is to boycott in order to achieve change. Events that can bring millions of dollars to struggling families hang in the balance. Major League Baseball pulled both its All-Star Game and its draft from Georgia, which could cost our state nearly $100 million in lost revenue. 

Rather than accept responsibility for their craven actions, Republican leaders blame me and others who have championed voting rights (and actually read the bill). Their faux outrage is designed to hide the fact that they prioritized making it harder for people of color to vote over the economic well-being of all Georgians. To add to the injury, the failed former president is now calling for cancellation of baseball as the national pastime.

Stacey Abrams speaks to viewers of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on Aug. 18, 2020.

Boycotts invariably also cost jobs. To be sustainable, the pain of deprivation must be shared rather than borne by those who are least resilient. They also require a long-term commitment to action. The North Carolina boycott of 2016 didn’t stop with the election of Democrat Roy Cooper, and the venerable Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days, ending only with a Supreme Court decision. 

No more Jim Crow: Fight voter suppression laws in the states. Don't let America go backward 

I have no doubt that voters of color, particularly Black voters, are willing to endure the hardships of boycotts. But such monetary loss is unlikely to affect the stubborn, frightened Republicans who see voter suppression as their only way to win. Money isn’t quite as seductive as political power to these putative leaders. 

Instead of a boycott, I strongly urge other events and productions to do business in Georgia and speak out against our law and similar proposals in other states. They should also intentionally hire the targets of SB 202 — young people, people of color and minimum-wage workers who want to elect leaders to fight for their economic security. I again repeat my admonition from 2019 that leaving us behind won’t save us. Bring your business to Georgia and, if you’re already here, stay and fight. Stay and vote.

Businesses can redeem themselves

I appreciate the public positions taken by MLB, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and hundreds of other companies. Even more can be done to help stop these bills or raise awareness. Here’s what corporations can do if they want to show they know what’s at stake:  

First, publicly acknowledge the truth of what’s happening. Corporations cannot accept bills that turn horrific intent into terrible reality. Lobbying may stop the complete annihilation of long-protected rights, but the damage done by SB 202 and its companions in other states will hurt thousands upon thousands of voters. For corporations doing business in the other 46 states considering voter suppression legislation, speak out now when it might actually stop the bills from becoming law.  

Second, corporations eager to prove their good faith can do so by putting their resources to good use. Rather than financing state legislators pushing these anti-democratic bills, refuse to fund their efforts. Instead, use those earmarked campaign dollars to support projects that help the poor, the elderly, students and the isolated get the identification they need to cast their ballots in 2022.

In Georgia, for example, at least 200,000 people do not have the required restrictive photo ID. The so-called free ID offered in Georgia and other states is not free when the hours to access it are limited, transportation is difficult and the documents necessary are hard to locate, too expensive or unavailable.

Stacey Abrams:Rewrite democracy rules to build an America that serves its people 

Third, companies must stand up for voters by endorsing the federal voting rights standards included in the For the People Act (H.R. 1 and S. 1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4). The For the People Act would ensure that Americans’ access to democracy does not depend on the state in which they live. As proposed, automatic voter registration, in-person early voting and no-excuse absentee voting would be guaranteed for voters regardless of geography. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore enforcement of the historic Voting Rights Act, blocking state laws that would disenfranchise voters of color in the future.

In speeches I give to young activists and seasoned advocates, I urge them to speak up, show up and stand up. We can expect no less from the economic pillars of our communities. Now is the time for American business to pick a side: Stand with your employees, customers and shareholders, or with those who will take away their voices. We are watching. 

Stacey Abrams is the founder of Fair Fight Action and the former Georgia House Minority Leader. Follow her on Twitter: @staceyabrams