WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has called Georgia’s new slate of voting rules “a blatant attack on the right to vote, the Constitution and good conscience” and “un-American.” Later, he declared it “Jim Crow on steroids.”
But until Wednesday night, Biden had not weighed in on what people who agree with him should do about the new Georgia policies, which critics say will disenfranchise mostly minority voters.
In an interview aired on ESPN, Biden said he would “strongly support” players who believe Major League Baseball should move the summer All-Star Game from Truist Stadium, the home of the Atlanta Braves — a site eight miles from where Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed the new election measures into law.
The remarks put Biden on a tightrope between defending Americans’ right to vote and calling for a controversial boycott that could kneecap people and businesses emerging from the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also risky ground for a president who campaigned on his ability to attract both conservatives and liberals to voting booths, and who has resisted Republican efforts to link him to the most extreme members of his own party.
Georgia has become a key battleground in the partisan fight over voting rights, as Democrats in Washington attempt to push through far-reaching legislation aimed at dramatically expanding access to elections. The state was central to Biden’s narrow electoral college victory over President Donald Trump, and also produced two upset Senate victories for Democrats that clinched their one-vote control of the chamber.
Some of Georgia’s biggest companies — including Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines — and Atlanta sports teams have also come out strongly against the state’s new voting law, responding to a growing backlash against the business world for failing to do enough to stop the measure.
In the interview, Biden was asked about statements by Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, who said last week that he “would look forward” to moving the July 13 All-Star Game from Atlanta because of the elections system overhaul.
“I think today’s professional athletes are acting incredibly responsibly. I would strongly support them doing that,” Biden told Sage Steele, co-host of ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” “People look to them. They’re leaders.
“Look what’s happened with the NBA, as well,” he continued. “Look what’s happened across the board. The very people who are victimized the most are the people who are the leaders in these various sports, and it’s just not right.”
A White House senior adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, characterized Biden’s statements as stopping short of calling for a boycott, but said he was firmly behind whatever players and the MLB decided to do.
“He was speaking from his heart. That was him,” the adviser said. “For him it’s not dictating what MLB should be doing … but he supports the decisions of the players.”
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said he discussed moving the game from Atlanta with Clark, but did not set a timeline for making a decision.
“I am talking to various constituencies within the game and I’m just not going beyond that in terms of what I would consider or not consider,” Manfred told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The ESPN segment aired Wednesday night, but Steele interviewed Biden earlier in the day, following a Pittsburgh event where Biden announced his infrastructure plan. On the hourlong Air Force One flight to Pittsburgh, coverage of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd last May, was playing on the plane’s TV screens and has been a prominent story in news coverage this week. Floyd’s killing ignited protests in cities across the world, and sparked a nationwide debate about the role systemic racism plays in American society — including laws that critics say disenfranchise Black voters.
Georgia is one of a handful of states that have introduced bills about voting restrictions after Trump falsely claimed that widespread fraud cost him the 2020 election.
Two months after Biden beat Trump in Georgia by less than 12,000 votes, the state elected two Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael G. Warnock, giving Democrats an edge in the U.S. Senate and opening the door for Biden to enact a more ambitious policy agenda.
Voting rights groups say restrictions passed by Republican legislatures disproportionately target Black voters and other voters of color. In Georgia, people can be charged with a misdemeanor for giving food or water to people standing in line at the polls. And the law requires an appointee of the Legislature to chair the state elections committee, instead of the elected secretary of state.
Kemp was blasted for the law and even the signing ceremony. A photo of the moment shows him flanked by a group of white male legislators and seated beneath a painting of a plantation.
The most outspoken critics have called for boycotts of Georgia-based companies like Coca-Cola and Delta, saying they weren’t strong enough in their criticism of the bill and should face economic consequences.
But others say nuance is necessary. Among them is Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who has emerged as an advocate for voting rights.
In a USA Today editorial, she said she understood the allure of a boycott, but cautioned that the biggest damage would happen to poor people and minorities already being targeted by the new voting laws.
“One lesson of boycotts is that the pain of deprivation must be shared to be sustainable. Otherwise, those least resilient bear the brunt of these actions; and in the aftermath, they struggle to access the victory,” Abrams wrote. “And boycotts are complicated affairs that require a long-term commitment to action. I have no doubt that voters of color, particularly Black voters, are willing to endure the hardships of boycotts. But I don’t think that’s necessary — yet.”
In a Thursday statement to The Washington Post, Abrams added: “If corporations or major events are going to come to Georgia, they need to come to Georgia with the clear message they do not support these bills. I don’t disagree with the president’s characterization. These bills are an atrocity.”
The calls for a Georgia boycott mirror what happened in North Carolina after the state legislature passed a law in 2016 that required transgender people to use changing rooms, bathrooms and showers in state-run buildings that corresponded to the sex on their birth certificate instead of their gender identity.
Deutsche Bank and PayPal canceled planned expansions into the Tarheel State. The NCAA said it wouldn’t play March Madness games in North Carolina while the so-called bathroom ban was in effect. And the NBA moved its All-Star Game to Atlanta.
A year after North Carolina’s law was signed, an economic analysis showed that the result of boycotts could cost the state nearly $4 billion over a decade.
Ultimately, the state bowed to the pressure, rescinding parts of the law in 2017.
But then-President Barack Obama didn’t push for a boycott. Instead, his administration directed schools across the nation to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities, including locker rooms and bathrooms, that match their chosen gender identity. Public schools, colleges and universities that didn’t comply risked losing federal funds.
Trump, by contrast, embraced calling for boycotts as a political tactic — and began calling for bans of some companies even before he was inaugurated.
By the end of Trump’s time in office, the number of media entities and companies on the boycott list swelled to roughly 30, including Harley-Davidson, AT&T, Macy’s, the NFL, AT&T and Glenfiddich scotch.