Delta is under fire for its stance on the controversial Georgia election bill

Mar 30, 2021

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Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has come under fierce criticism after CEO Ed Bastian issued a statement praising aspects of a controversial new voting law in Georgia — only to walk the statement back days later.

The law has been sharply rebuked by Democrats and voting rights and access advocates, who say that it is an effort by Republicans to make it harder for people to vote, with President Joe Biden calling it “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” The law, which was passed last week, puts restrictions on the use of absentee and mail-in ballots, and criminalizes giving food or water to voters in line at poll sites.

In his statement on Friday — the day after the bill was signed into law by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — Bastian said the law had “improved considerably during the legislative process,” saying that it improved certain aspects of voting.

“Nonetheless, we understand concerns remain over other provisions in the legislation, and there continues to be work ahead in this important effort,” Bastian added.

Reaction to the statement was swift, causing #BoycottDelta to trend on Twitter.

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“I’m a Diamond Medallion flyer on @Delta but I shan’t be flying them moving forward. Supporting voter suppression is a lousy corporate strategy,” tweeted author and columnist Roxane Gay.

“@Delta, there were three recounts and no voter fraud. These laws are designed to make it harder for young people and communities of color to vote. Period. Stand up for the rights of your employees and your customers. Stand up for democracy. Jesus,” tweeted Bradley Whitford, the actor best known for his role in “The West Wing” TV series and his prolific progressive Twitter activism.

Political columnist Keith Olbermann tweeted as well. “Do not fly Delta. Do not spend money with Delta. Boycott Delta. Ruin Delta.”

The airline’s tweets since the statement have been inundated by replies referencing the airline statement.

“When you stop supporting voter suppression, I will be thrilled to fly Delta again,” one user wrote, replying to a tweet about COVID travel restrictions and active routes.

On Tuesday, Bastian told staff in an internal video message that the airline felt that the bill was inevitable, and that the best option was to try and mitigate the damage done by it. TPG reviewed the video message.

“So our team set out to do what they could to engage extensively for weeks with elected officials from both parties, expressing our strong view that Georgia must have a fair election process with broad voter participation and full and equal access to the polls,” Bastian said.

“But I know many of you are disappointed, frustrated and angry that we did not take a stronger public stand against specific measures in the bill,” he added. “Unfortunately, the reality is that would have made it much harder to shape the legislation at all and we would have lost a seat at the table.”

Bastian said that there was no widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, countering unevidenced claims by former President Trump, and said that the airline lobbied to have elements of the bill related to those claims pulled.

“Thanks in part to the hard work of our team, many of the worst elements were removed before the bill became law.”

On Wednesday, in a memo sent to staff and posted on Delta’s news release website, Bastian walked back his previous statements, acknowledging pressure from travelers and employees.

“We had some success in eliminating the most suppressive tactics that some had proposed,” Bastian wrote. “However, I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.”

“After having time to now fully understand all that is in the bill, coupled with discussions with leaders and employees in the Black community, it’s evident that the bill includes provisions that will make it harder for many underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives” he added. “That is wrong.”

The episode highlighted the fraught nature of corporate civic engagement in today’s political climate. Although Bastian and Delta have been vocal on other issues in the past, including gun control, Black Lives Matter, vaccines, masks and more, the airline nonetheless attempts to walk a fine line to avoid antagonizing members of either side of the political aisle, fearful of alienating politicians with which it frequently engages.

Delta was not the only Atlanta-based company to come under fire. Coca-Cola was also criticized for failing to vocally oppose the legislation.

When contacted by TPG, Delta declined to provide additional comment.

Note: This story was updated on Wednesday, March 31, to include information about a new statement by Delta CEO Ed Bastian.

Featured image by Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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