On March 11, Delta Air Lines dedicated a building at its Atlanta headquarters to Andrew Young, the civil rights leader and former mayor. At the ceremony, Mr. Young spoke of the restrictive voting rights bill that Republicans were rushing through the Georgia state legislature. Then, after the speeches, Mr. Young’s daughter, Andrea, a prominent activist herself, cornered Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian.
“I told him how important it was to oppose this law,” she said.
For Mr. Bastian, it was an early warning that the issue of voting rights might soon ensnare Delta in another national dispute. Over the past five years, corporations have taken political stands like never before, often in response to the extreme policies of former President Donald J. Trump.
After Mr. Trump’s equivocating response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, Ken Frazier, the Black chief executive of Merck, resigned from a presidential advisory group, prompting dozens of other top executives to distance themselves from the president. Last year, after the killing of George Floyd, hundreds of companies expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But for corporations, the dispute over voting rights is different. An issue that both political parties see as a priority is not easily addressed with statements of solidarity and donations. Taking a stand on voting rights legislation thrusts companies into partisan politics and pits them against Republicans who have proven willing to raise taxes and enact onerous regulations on companies that cross them politically.
It is a head-spinning new landscape for big companies, which are trying to appease Democrats focused on social justice, as well as populist Republicans who are suddenly unafraid to break ties with business. Companies like Delta are caught in the middle, and face steep political consequences no matter what they do.
“It was very hard under President Trump, and the business community was hoping that with a change of administration it might get a bit easier,” said Rich Lesser, the chief executive of Boston Consulting Group. “But business leaders are still facing challenges on how to navigate a range of issues, and the elections issue is among the most sensitive.”
At first, Delta, Georgia’s largest employer, tried to stay out of the fight on voting rights. But after the Georgia law was passed, a group of powerful Black executives publicly called on big companies to oppose the voting legislation. Hours later, Delta and Coca-Cola abruptly reversed course and disavowed the Georgia law. On Friday, Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star game from Atlanta in protest, and more than 100 other companies spoke out in defense of voting rights.
The groundswell of support suggests that the Black executives’ clarion call will have an impact in the months ahead, as Republican lawmakers in more than 40 states advance restrictive voting laws. But already, the backlash has been swift, with Mr. Trump calling for boycotts of companies opposing such laws, and Georgia lawmakers voting for new taxes on Delta.
“If people feel like it’s a been a week of discomfort and uncertainty, it should be, and it needs to be,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has been pushing companies to get involved. “Corporations have to figure out who they are in this moment.”
Throughout it all, Delta was at the center of the storm. Delta has long played an outsize role in Georgia’s business and political life, and since Mr. Bastian became chief executive in 2016, he has engaged with some thorny political and social issues.
Delta supports L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and in 2018, after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Mr. Bastian ended a partnership with the National Rifle Association. In response, Republican lawmakers in Georgia voted to eliminate a tax break for Delta, costing the company $50 million.
Yet as 2021 began and Mr. Bastian focused on his company’s recovery from the pandemic, an even more partisan issue loomed.
In February, civil rights activists began reaching out to Delta, flagging what they saw as problematic provisions in early drafts of the bill, including a ban on Sunday voting, and asking the company to use its clout and lobbying muscle to sway the debate.
Delta’s government affairs team shared some of those concerns, but decided to work behind the scenes, rather than go public. It was a calculated choice intended to avoid upsetting Republican lawmakers.
In early March, Delta lobbyists pushed David Ralston, the Republican head of the Georgia house, and aides to Gov. Brian Kemp to remove some far-reaching provisions in the bill.
But even as pressure mounted on Delta to publicly oppose the legislation, Mr. Bastian’s advisers were telling him to remain silent. Instead, the company issued a statement supporting voting rights generally. Other major Atlanta companies, including Coca-Cola, UPS and…