April 1, 2021

The efforts of Republican state legislators in 43 states to suppress voting have made the rubber of Republicans politics meet the road of reality.

Republicans are pushing the idea that it is imperative to pass laws to protect the sanctity of the vote because their supporters are concerned that the 2020 election was stolen. But, as observers have pointed out, if they want to reassure their voters that the election was clean, the way to do it would be to tell them the truth: the election wasn’t stolen.

This reality has been established by Christopher Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the United States Department of Homeland Security whom Trump fired after he said the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history”; by former president Trump’s attorney general William Barr, who said that the Justice Department had found no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election; and by judges who dismissed more than 50 lawsuits alleging voter fraud.

Last week, Trump lawyer Sidney Powell claimed in a court filing that “no reasonable person” would believe that her lies about election fraud “were truly statements of fact.”

And yet, rather than admitting that Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election fairly, Republicans are claiming that they must relieve supporters’ concerns about the stolen election—a myth they, themselves, have created—by passing legislation that will suppress Democratic votes.

There seem to be a couple of things at stake here.

One is that, having riled up Trump supporters by telling them that the election was stolen, Republican leaders can’t very well now back down and admit that they were lying. So they are playing this charade out in the hopes that they can keep Trump supporters energized enough to keep showing up at the polls and to keep voting Republican.

The other, of course, is that Democratic wins, especially in Georgia, indicate that the Republicans must either change their political positions or get rid of Democratic voters. Since the one seems impossible to them, they are going for the other.

But the political imperative to get rid of Democratic voters is running headlong into modern America. Not only is 2021 more openly multicultural than the 1890s, when the previous avalanche of voter suppression kept poor people of all races and ethnicities from the polls, but also the people who approve of racial equality have way more economic power than they did a century or more ago.

Yesterday, more than 70 Black executives wrote a letter urging companies to fight the voter suppression measures under consideration in 43 states. “There is no middle ground here,” said Ken Chenault, the former head of American Express. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”

After complaints that companies had been quiet about the Georgia voter suppression bill, the chief executive officer of Delta Airlines, Ed Bastian, issued a statement calling the new law “unacceptable” and noting that “[t]he 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. Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights.” Bastian condemned the “sweeping voting reform act that could make it harder for many Georgians, particularly those in our Black and Brown communities, to exercise their right to vote.” He pledged “to protect and facilitate your precious right to vote.”

Shortly afterward, the leader of Coca-Cola, James Quincey, followed suit with an interview on CNBC that called the law “unacceptable.”

After Bastian spoke, Georgia Republicans said they were caught off guard by his opposition. In the Georgia House, Republicans voted to get rid of a tax break on jet fuel that benefits Delta. David Ralston, the leader of the Republican Party in the House said: “They like our public policy when we’re doing things that benefit them,” then added: “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand. You got to keep that in mind sometimes.”

That is, Republican lawmakers made it clear they are not legislating in the interest of the public good, but are instead using the law to retaliate against Delta after its chief executive officer criticized their voter suppression law. (The Georgia Senate did not take up the bill before the legislature adjourned.)

Similarly, Ralston told reporters he was now a Pepsi drinker, seemingly retaliating against Coca-Cola for its own opposition to the law.

A similar scene played out in Texas, where legislators are considering an even more restrictive bill that tries to end drive-through voting and 24-hour polling places, as well as giving partisan poll watchers more leeway to harass voters, including by recording them on video. Today, American Airlines announced it was “strongly opposed to this bill and others like it.” The company affirmed its support for democracy and called for making it easier, not harder, to vote. “Voting is the hallmark of our democracy, and is the foundation of our great country. We value the democratic process and believe every eligible American should be allowed to exercise their right to vote, no matter which political party or candidate they support.”

Tonight, the chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, Rodney Anderson, retweeted a statement cheering on the Georgia House for trying to strip Delta of the multimillion dollar tax break for criticizing the state’s voting bill. Then he suggested retaliating against companies that oppose Texas’s proposed voting restrictions by increasing their tax burdens. Within an hour, he had deleted the tweet.

In the late nineteenth century, southern lawmakers’ calculation that business would support voter suppression efforts would have been accurate. Indeed, southern lawmakers could suppress Black voting in part because business leaders across the country were happy to see poor voters cut out of political power, especially after the alliance movement suggested that farmers and workers might make common cause across race lines to change laws that privileged industry over ordinary Americans. When fourteen southern lawmakers defended their region’s suppression of Black voting in an 1890 book, they dedicated the work to “the businessmen of the North.”

The reaction of today’s business leaders to new voter suppression measures suggests that the old equation in which businessmen want to get rid of Black and poor voters is no longer so clear. While businesses undoubtedly like preferential treatment, they now answer to a broader constituency than they did a century or more ago, and that constituency does not necessarily support voter suppression. Today, Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, which is developing a hub in Atlanta, took a stand against the new Georgia election law. He wrote: “We hope that companies will come together and make clear that a healthy business requires a healthy community. And a healthy community requires that everyone have the right to vote conveniently, safely, and securely.” 

In 1890, southern white leaders promised the North that voter suppression would make the South bloom. They were wrong: by concentrating wealth and power among a few white leaders, it kept the South mired in poverty for at least two generations. Rejecting voter suppression this time around could write an entirely different story.