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Georgia’s new election reform law pits democracy against dollars

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The fight over how Georgia will conduct future elections has gone straight for the wallet.

Major League Baseball, the nation’s oldest professional sports league, pulled its prestigious All-Star Game and Draft out of Atlanta in protest of a new voting law. MLB’s departure will strip metro Atlanta businesses of millions of dollars in revenue.

If anyone had doubts about the staying power of this fight, MLB’s decision changed that. Until last Friday, the protests, legal challenges, and corporate murmurings were a tour de force for Democracy, now the fight has become a major-league headache that could cost metro Atlanta dearly.

As of late March, lawmakers in 47 states have introduced 361 voter-restrictive bills, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Georgia holds the distinction of being the first state to install what voting and civil rights advocates say are some of the most regressive voting measures in more than half a century.

“It’s a stain on Georgia,” Rashawn Ray, who writes about race and social policies for the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “It’s going to have a disproportionate financial impact on the economy and the people. It impacts everything from corporate America to the gig economy and this primarily is falling on workers in Atlanta who’ve been struggling financially even before the pandemic.”

But Ray noted that Major League Baseball’s departure “is sending a loud and clear signal about where its values lie. It has a large percentage of Latino players and a growing percent of Black players. Had this happened two months ago, I imagine the NBA (National Basketball Association) would have done the same thing.”

Despite the intense growing pressure, Gov.Brian Kemp continues to dig in his heels, insisting the new law is fair and will restore confidence in the state’s electoral process.

Businesses and industries that have come to the state aren’t buying the GOP’s stance, and MLB has announced Denver will host the All-Star game this summer.

Additionally, members of the Hollywood elite are threatening to leave, putting Georgia’s nearly $10 billion-a-year film and TV-producing industry at stake. For instance, James Mangold, director of the Oscar-winning film “Ford v Ferrari,” curtly tweeted his feelings on the topic.

The National Black Justice Coalition has asked professional golfers not to play in the Masters Tournament this month in Augusta unless the law is repealed, as well. The law requires an identification number to get an absentee ballot, shortens the time voters can request absentee ballots, gives the Republican-led legislature more control over the state elections board, and makes it a misdemeanor to give people waiting in line to vote food or drink.

Many of Georgia’s homegrown corporations active last fall in providing resources and urging people to vote in the 2020 presidential election have since gone underground and are watching the fray from the sideline. But the nationwide corporate backlash against the new bill has increased. Hundreds of companies – Twitter, Zillow, Uber, Estee Lauder, Dow, and HP – are forcefully pushing back against the new voting laws in Georgia and elsewhere.

Social media, meanwhile, remains fired up with posts from community organizers, voting, and civil rights activists urging people to swear off Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, and Home Depot – which has put the companies in an untenable position.

“Georgia has been a leader in terms of the business climate as well as its overall elected public leadership over the last 50 to 60 years in trying to be a place that’s socially progressive,” Keith Mason, Gwinnett business leader, and political insider, recently told Atlanta Civic Circle. “Now we’re at a point where we’ve got to walk the walk and see where it goes. It’s not simple.”

Such pressure isn’t going unnoticed in a state where black buying power accounts for 24 cents of every dollar spent by Georgia residents. However, as calls for boycotts grow, some observers – including activist and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams – say boycotting may not be the solution.

“If the boycott is effective it would have an impact,” Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the Selig Center at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “But I can’t say how effective it would be. There are calls for boycotts all the time but they’re not necessarily effective.”

Ray agrees.

“People don’t realize how long you have to engage [in a boycott] for it to be sustainable.” Ray, the Brookings Institution’s David M. Rubenstein Fellow, told Atlanta Civic Circle.

The Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, for example, took 381 days to convince city officials to desegregate their transportation system.

“That sort of commitment would have to be made,” Ray said.

MLB’s departure isn’t the first time a sporting group has used its influence to affect change in a controversial matter, Ray noted.

In 2016, the NBA withdrew its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte, N.C., in protest over that state’s controversial law that banned transgender people from using bathrooms in accordance with their gender identities. North Carolina rescinded its law a year later.

Here in Georgia, corporations intervened during the debate over the state’s religious freedom bill, which would have allowed businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples. That measure, which has repeatedly come up again in recent years, ultimately died.

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