By Alexandra Ulmer
(Reuters) - Voting rights groups are calling on companies such as Coca-Cola Co and Delta Air Lines Inc to oppose efforts by Republican lawmakers in Georgia to enact sweeping new restrictions on voting access in the battleground state.
The organizations, including the Black Voters Matter Fund, the New Georgia Project Action Fund and the Georgia NAACP, launched a campaign on social media and in local news outlets this week asking the corporations to take a stand against legislation they said aims to curb turnout from Democratic-leaning Black voters.
Black voters were crucial to helping elect Democrat President Joe Biden in the November election and two Democratic senators in a January run-off in Georgia, a once unthinkable scenario in the traditionally Republican southern state.
"Some of these companies have made beautiful statements for Black Lives Matter," said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a group focused on increasing Black Americans' voting access. "Yet here, in the moment where it matters most, they have been silent."
Republicans in Georgia and across the country are using former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud to back state-level voting changes they say are needed to restore election integrity.
Republicans asked the U.S. Supreme Court this week to uphold voting restrictions in Arizona in a case that could further hobble the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
They also opposed an election reform bill passed on Wednesday by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives. The For the People Act, the most comprehensive voting bill since the 1965 act, faces long odds in the Senate, with Republicans saying it fails to do enough to combat fraud.
In Georgia, likely one of the biggest battlegrounds in the 2022 elections with a U.S. Senate seat and the governor's office on the ballot, Republican state lawmakers sponsoring the voting measures maintain they are meant to safeguard elections.
A bill passed by the Republican-controlled Georgia House on Monday would restrict ballot drop boxes, tighten absentee voting requirements and limit early voting on Sundays, curtailing traditional "Souls to the Polls" voter turnout programs in Black churches.
Some voting rights groups have increased their focus on corporations based in Georgia after Popular Information, an online politics newsletter run by Judd Legum, a former aide to Democrat Hillary Clinton, cited campaign finance records https://popular.info/p/georgia showing the companies had donated around $7.4 million since 2018 to politicians sponsoring the voting legislation.
The groups took out several full-page ads in local newspapers urging Delta, Coca-Cola, Southern Company, Home Depot Inc, United Parcel Service Inc and Aflac Inc to stop the donations and support federal voting rights reform.
Albright said the groups will encourage Georgia residents to call the companies and that protests could be organized in front of their offices.
In statements to Reuters, Coca-Cola, UPS, Delta, Home Depot and Aflac said they were committed to voter rights but did not provide specifics about their stance on the Georgia bills or their future political donations.
Coca-Cola said it paused political donations in January, when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. The company added that it supported efforts to "help facilitate a balanced approach" to the voting bills. Aflac also said it paused all political donations in January.
Delta said it had not made any individual contributions to Georgia House or Senate candidates in 2020.
UPS and Coca-Cola said they were working with local commerce chambers on voting rights issues. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce did not comment on ongoing talks, referring Reuters to a Feb. 16 statement in which the group said it believed it should be "easy to vote, hard to commit fraud."
Southern Company declined to comment.
U.S. companies in general are becoming more reticent about the exposure that comes with political donations, said Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University.
"This will give them yet another excuse to back away from that type of contribution," Green said.
Georgia's Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment on voting rights groups' efforts to enlist companies' help in fighting the bills.
The Georgia proposals have drawn scrutiny from More Than A Vote, a voter rights organization founded last year by NBA star LeBron James and other athletes to expand Black voter turnout and fight systemic racism in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
The group is kicking off a new campaign to fight efforts to restrict voting access. It will start by running a 30-second advertisement narrated by James during the televised NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta on Sunday.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Makini Brice and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Aurora Ellis and Daniel Wallis)