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Corporate America is wading into the voting rights brawl. Here's why.

The sudden groundswell comes as Republicans seek to tighten voting laws across the country.
Reginald Jackson announces a boycott of Coca-Cola Co. products outside the Georgia Capitol on Thursday, March 25, 2021 in Atlanta.
Reginald Jackson announces a boycott of Coca-Cola Co. products outside the Georgia Capitol on Thursday, March 25, 2021 in Atlanta.Jeff Amy / AP

Voting rights advocate Nsé Ufot has been fighting for a week like this all year.

For months, more than a half-dozen activist groups, including her own New Georgia Project, had urged business interests to denounce Republican-led efforts to restrict voting access in Georgia, she said. Billboards had gone up across the state that parodied corporate slogans, urging action. Advocates projected campaigns on the side of a hotel hosting attendees for the NBA All-Star weekend in early March.

The companies had offered cautious statements, and what Ufot calls "hand-wringing" and "shoulder shrugging." That is, until Wednesday, when Atlanta-based Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola issued forceful condemnations of Georgia's new restrictive voting law, enacted last week. From there, corporate criticism of Republican voting bills seemed to spread like wildfire — moving across state lines and morphing into a national trend that activists say finally reflects the urgency of the sheer number of restrictions under consideration across the U.S.

"There’s a clarity about January 6 that people get, that that was an attack on our democracy," Ufot said. "If you understand that the attack on the Electoral College vote was unpatriotic and anti-democratic, then you need to continue down that same logical street until you get to these 360-plus bills in 47 states that are trying to make it more difficult for Americans to vote."

Major corporations' foray into the election policy debate, which experts called unusual, comes as Republicans across the country work to advance hundreds of restrictions, changes that voting rights advocates and civil rights groups argue would disproportionately affect voters of color.

By March 24, lawmakers had introduced 361 restrictive election bills in 47 legislatures, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which has been tracking the legislation. That's 108 more than in the center's last count, on Feb. 19, a 43 percent increase.

GOP lawmakers say these bills are needed to improve public confidence in the results, even as they cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 elections themselves. By all non-partisan accounts, the 2020 election was secure and the results accurate, despite former President Donald Trump's repeated and false claims otherwise. His own attorney general, William Barr, said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and the then-president's legal efforts to overturn the results failed in courtrooms around the country.

Advocates said the last year of speaking up — about civil rights and the pandemic particularly — primed companies to get involved on this issue, too.

“This week was really the week that corporate America stepped back up,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president for development at the Brennan Center. “And really, I think was called to task to put their money where their mouth was for all the things they said they were for in 2020.”

Weiss-Wolf works with corporations in fundraising at the nonpartisan organization but said in the last year she started helping companies find their civic voice, too. In 2020, hundreds of companies committed to giving employees time to vote or paid time off to serve as poll workers. Amid a racial reckoning inspired by George Floyd, a Black man who died last May after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, many issued statements underscoring their support of civil rights and committing to anti-racist action.

After a pro-Trump mob fueled by Trump's stolen election lie attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, dozens of corporations paused donations from their political action committees, with some saying they wouldn’t give to Republicans who challenged the results of the election.

The Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group that encourages civic participation from businesses, put out a letter Friday condemning any effort to restrict ballot access, with nearly 200 companies, including Salesforce, ViacomCBS and The Estée Lauder Companies, as signatories.

“Companies have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on with their consumers and employees and this is a priority for folks and so companies are making it a priority for themselves,” said Mike Ward, co-founder of the Civic Alliance.

A letter from Black business leaders — published on Wednesday in a full-page ad in The New York Times and signed by more than 70 Black business executives — made his group's action imperative, he said.

“That was the moment, it was like, yup, this is an urgent priority and we’re going to release something as soon as possible,” he told NBC News. “It went from being something that was taking days long to work toward to being hours long to work toward.”

Lisa Cylar Barrett, director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the letter was a “really critical turning point.”

She said the trick now is to stay in the game.

“It’s really important that they remain involved, so this can’t just be — make a statement and disappear,” she said. “We’ve got to see this through.”

Ufot said she was heartened by the momentum, but said it’s not enough. The Georgia law is still on the books.

“We don’t feel like we’ve won yet,” she said. “Symbols matter, but in what way does this prevent us from going to jail for handing out bottle water to voters in line?”

Republicans have responded forcefully to corporations' new-found outspokenness. In Georgia, the state House immediately set about repealing a tax credit the legislature afforded Delta.

“You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand. You got to keep that in mind sometimes," said Georgia state House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (The effort died in the state Senate.)

Elsewhere, Republicans have blasted criticism of their election policies as the latest issue in the so-called culture wars.

“Cancel culture and woke political activists are coming for every aspect of your life, sports included,” Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement Friday after Major League Baseball announced it would move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the state's law.

Texas Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, a Republican, tried to tie it to ongoing legislative fights over transgender students participating in sports, around the country and in Texas, too.

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy," he said in a statement.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Alex Keyssar, author of the “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States," said he'd seen companies mobilize on LGBTQ rights, but never around voting rights.

"What makes this complicated is that in this case, it’s not just the issue. It’s the fact that these laws are being justified in the name of the 'Big Lie' and thus it’s a repudiation of the Republican Party as it exists today," he said, referring to how Democrats have described Trump's stolen election lie.

Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said the moves were indicative of a much greater change.

"It's both a good and a bad sign. It's a good sign in that voting rights is getting the kind of visibility as an issue that I think it's long deserved — then years ago when I was working in this space, I couldn't get people to think about it," he said in an interview Friday. "The fact that it’s all happening is a bad sign because it means voting rights is very much a part of the culture wars."

Historian Michael Beschloss said the week’s political groundswell fit right into the nation’s civil rights history and pointed to Martin Luther King Jr.'s final speech, delivered on April 3, 53 years ago.

In it, King vowed to use boycotts and corporate power to fight for justice, listing companies like Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread as targets and arguing that these companies needed to get involved in an ongoing union strike.

“I don’t see how anyone can say this is radical or out of keeping with American tradition,” Beschloss said of the corporations answering calls to come off the sidelines on the issue of voting. “This tool is an old tool in American history.”