Jurisprudence

Why Everyone Is So Mad at Delta Air Lines Over Voting Rights

The company donated to Georgia’s new bill’s sponsors and then tried to walk a middle line that does not exist.

A Delta Air Lines Boeing 757-251 flying in the sky.
Daniel Slim/Getty Images

Georgia passed and signed S.B. 202 last week, the law that is already infamous for making it a crime to give water to those waiting in line to vote, among other severe restrictions that disproportionately affect Black voters. It would not have been possible without corporate contributions—as Judd Legum of Popular Information reported earlier this month, major corporations were prolific donors to the Republican lawmakers who supported, sponsored, and passed S.B. 202 into law.

Perhaps no corporation has received more blowback than Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which has donated at least $41,600 since 2018 to the sponsors of the legislation that became S.B. 202. Last week, Delta—which is the state’s largest employer—faced protests at its main terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and calls for the company to be boycotted after CEO Ed Bastian offered a mealy-mouthed statement that failed to condemn the law. In that statement, Bastian claimed that his company “engaged extensively with state elected officials in both parties” to “improve” the law. Activists disagreed and the hashtag “BoycottDelta” was soon trending on Twitter.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

On Wednesday, Bastian reversed course. In a letter to employees, the Delta CEO acknowledged that the law will make it harder for Black Georgians to cast their votes, saying that the law is “wrong,” and stating that it was “based on a lie” that there was rampant voter fraud in the 2020 election. This firm statement then caused a counterbacklash from the state’s elected Republicans, with the Georgia House of Representatives voting on Wednesday evening to punish Delta by revoking a tax break on jet fuel. (The state Senate declined to advance the measure, and so it failed for the time being.)

As much as it infuriated Georgia Republicans, though, Bastian’s statement stopped short of pledging any substantive action to work to reverse the “unacceptable” law. Indeed, when I asked Delta’s corporate communications on Wednesday whether the company would pledge to divest donations from the legislators who sponsored, supported, and ultimately passed the law that their own CEO now acknowledges is “wrong”—a key demand of organizers—Delta would not make any such commitment. “As it relates to DeltaPAC and our political donations, we have robust processes in place for reviewing candidates before every contribution to ensure they align with both Delta’s position on priority aviation and business issues, and our values. Previous contributions do not mean DeltaPAC will contribute to a candidate in the future,” Lisa Hanna of Delta corporate communications told me.

Advertisement

In his statement on Wednesday, meanwhile, Bastian promised that his company was “monitoring legislation in Congress” named after John Lewis “that will expand voting rights nationwide.” That legislation faces an incredibly uphill road to passage given the near certainty of a GOP filibuster in the Senate. Activists who are working to gather support for national voting rights bills were unmoved by Bastian’s tepid promise. “I don’t need them to monitor anything. I need them to support it,” LaTosha Brown, whose group Black Voters Matter helped organize last week’s protests against Delta, told me. “They monitored S.B. 202. The world monitored. What we need now is action.” While Brown commended Bastian and Delta for having “finally seen the light,” she said that the “litmus test” for whether further action was needed against Delta would be how it responded to the voting rights bills currently in Congress, H.R. 1 and H.R. 4. “They have enough clout that they should be able to leverage their clout and if not, they’re going to deal with the consequences of all that,” she said.

Advertisement

If past is prelude, there’s no indication that Delta is going to pass Brown’s test. In addition to Delta’s support of local legislators who turned S.B. 202 into law and the company’s refusal to commit to divesting from those candidates in the future, Delta has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting national politicians who have opposed voting rights action in Congress (if passed, H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 would overturn the worst sections of S.B. 202). According to Open Secrets, Delta Air Lines PAC gave 60 percent of its donations—or $648,500—to Republicans at the federal level during the 2019–20 cycle. In the past two years, 33 of 41 of Delta’s Senate donations went to Republicans, including to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been adamant in his opposition to federal voting rights legislation. Delta’s support of Republicans who oppose voting rights also includes $10,000 a piece to Reps. Buddy Carter, Drew Ferguson, Jody Hice, and Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, all of whom voted against the bill that is now the John Lewis Act when it was up in 2019. Hice is now running for secretary of state against incumbent Brad Raffensperger because his fellow Republican didn’t do enough to “fight” to overturn Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the state after the 2020 election.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Indeed, as Legum has noted, in January, Delta had declined to follow the lead of other corporations that committed to freeze donations to candidates who had supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. In response to questions he submitted at the time, Delta gave Legum the same exact statement it gave me on Wednesday about S.B. 202 that “previous contributions do not mean DeltaPAC will contribute to a candidate in the future.”

Brown wants Delta to finally put its words into action. “At this point, is you is or is you ain’t,” she said. “Either you’re for supporting voting rights or you’re against it. There’s no gray area.” Indeed, the state GOP’s vindictive attempt to punish Delta for shifting its public stance shows how pointless it is to attempt to walk a middle path on this issue. You are either going to be on the right side of history on voting rights, or not.

When the voting rights legislation comes up for a vote in the Senate, we should all monitor which side Delta is on.

Advertisement