Jurisprudence

The Problem With Boycotting Georgia

The voting laws the state just passed are terrible. They are not unique.

Animation of a map of the U.S. with lights flickering on in Georgia and then in all the other states
Illustration by Slate. Image by Getty Images Plus.

In the spring of 2012, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill that required women throughout the commonwealth to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound procedure before they were allowed to terminate a pregnancy. That law set off a massive national furor because, despite framing that suggested the procedure was medically indicated (it wasn’t), the law was mainly just another means of embarrassing and violating women as part of a programmatic series of unnecessary “informed consent” laws intended to dissuade pregnant women from abortion. Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers spoofed the state on Saturday Night Live. Jon Stewart was merciless. Very soon after, Virginia’s Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was at the time on the list of 2012 Republican vice presidential hopefuls, panicked and withdrew his support for the vaginal probe, and a weaker version of the bill became law instead.

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At the time, according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, Virginia would have been the eighth state to require ultrasounds before abortions, but only the Virginia law became a locus of nationwide fury. A harsher law was already in place in Texas (to be fair, Garry Trudeau, the Pulitzer-winning creator of Doonesbury, had gone after the Texas Legislature in a cartoon so controversial it was pulled in some newspapers). Today, according to Guttmacher, 26 states regulate the provision of ultrasound by abortion providers, and 10 states mandate that an abortion provider perform an ultrasound on every woman seeking an abortion, with eight states requiring the provider to offer the woman the opportunity to view the image. This past January, an Indiana law first signed by Gov. Mike Pence in 2016 finally went into effect, requiring that any woman seeking an abortion have an ultrasound performed at least 18 hours before the procedure, for no medical reason beyond “more information” and “the sanctity of life.”

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Mike Pence has his own viral state law controversy. Another Indiana law he’d signed in March of 2015, a “religious freedom” bill that would have allowed Indiana businesses to challenge local laws prohibiting discrimination against gay customers, caused another massive national uproar. The NCAA, headquartered in Indianapolis, took the lead on protest because the law passed just before the men’s Final Four tournament. As a result of the pushback, Pence signed a softer version of the bill in April of that year.

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When North Carolina passed a law in 2016 barring transgender people from using the public restroom aligned with their gender identities, the state’s economy took a $400 million hit as a result of boycotts from PayPal, Paul McCartney, and others. The state repealed the restriction in 2017.

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When Georgia passed the country’s at-the-time most draconian abortion law in 2019, effectively banning all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, there was another nationwide outcry. Although Georgia was the fourth state to pass such a law (pro-life groups were emboldened by the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh), Disney’s chief executive, Bob Iger, warned that it would be “very difficult” for the company to continue filming in Georgia if the law went into effect. Within a day, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia made similar threats, and various celebrities refused to film there. That Georgia heartbeat bill was permanently enjoined in 2020, although more restrictive abortion bans have followed in other states.

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All of this is to say that, sure, high-level public and corporate outrage sometimes manages to soften or even kill a repressive state law. And those outcomes are surely real victories. But similar or even more cruel laws almost always wind up being passed by different state legislatures around the country—and many of them, even when they are far worse, end up largely ignored. Because so many Republican bills are copycat cut-and-paste jobs that are pushed simultaneously around the country by groups that produce fill-in-the-blank model legislation, a splashy public defeat in a single state can obscure huge successes in a dozen others. And while massive public attention focused on a single injustice in a single state is an important means of public education, it can also lead people to believe that what’s happening in that state is an outlier when in fact it’s the rule. North Carolina may not have a bathroom ban anymore, but over the past several months, a rash of states have passed laws prohibiting transgender girls from participating in school sports. And several states, including Arkansas, may be on the verge of criminalizing gender-affirming health care for trans youth. Several abortion bans that have sailed through state legislatures—including a near-total ban just passed in Arkansas—didn’t generate the nationwide controversy triggered by that Georgia law of 2019.

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So beyond purely tactical questions about whether massive corporate boycotts and peripatetic Hollywood attention directing people away from states in protest end up harming the Republican legislatures more than the marginalized communities who actually have to live in those economies, there is utility in asking whether all this focus on Georgia’s new vote-suppressive law takes attention away from the fact that Republican state legislators have already sponsored a tsunami of Georgia-style voting restrictions, versions of which are advancing in nearly every state. As the Brennan Center’s tracker notes, “As of March 24, legislators have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states. That’s 108 more than the 253 restrictive bills tallied as of February 19, 2021—a 43 percent increase in little more than a month.” In other words, it’s not just Georgia. Brennan has clocked 55 restrictive bills in 24 states that are already moving through state legislatures. Like Georgia’s law, most target absentee voting. A quarter seek stricter voter ID. The measures out there would make voter registration harder, expand voter roll purges, and cut back on early voting. And hyperfocusing on Georgia’s restrictive law may distract us from other chilling efforts to sweep equally awful GOP disenfranchisement strategies across new areas—including Georgia’s own new regulations enabling the partisan state takeover of county elections officials, which are currently being cut and pasted right onto Texas.

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Making mass disenfranchisement a Georgia-specific problem unleashes debate over a host of Georgia-specific solutions, which in turn fosters a sprawling public conversation about corporate boycotts and Major League Baseball and whether voter ID laws are inherently racist. And while it’s always a good day when Mitch McConnell is whining about big business and unimpeded free speech, the kerfuffle over who is throwing out the first pitch leads us away from a broader reckoning with a systemic, nationwide GOP effort to tamp down voting that is playing out across the entire country in ways that go beyond mere voter ID laws. Nathaniel Persily, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, where he co-directs the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, explains in an email why Georgia is commanding attention for what is actually a nationwide problem:

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Georgia has become a metaphor for the voting rights struggle, as much as it is one of the chief battlegrounds. It is far from the worst when it comes to voting accessibility. But attention has naturally drawn to it given the upset by Dems there in both the presidential and Senate races, the recent history of the president’s attempted manipulation of the vote totals, the fact that the state is controlled by Republicans (most of whom believe the 2020 election was stolen), and both the history and contemporary relevance of the fight by black voters for full voting access and equal citizenship. It represents a perfect storm of all of the forces and symbols of the contemporary voting rights struggle, and the backlash that the 2020 election and big lie have produced. It should not eclipse the larger movement afoot to retrench on voting rights, but instead Georgia should serve as a flashpoint for making the arguments that can be generalized wherever governments are making voting more difficult in response to misperceptions that the 2020 election was stolen.

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We are, in other words, laser-focused on Georgia this week because it provides the right metaphor. The racism of this new bill, paired with the state’s decades of history with Jim Crow vote suppression, certainly warrants particular attention, as does Georgia’s extremely recent history of activists flipping the state to win the Senate. But Georgia needs to continue to be the metaphor for the battle, and not the sole location of the battle. This voting rights battle is playing out everywhere the Big Lie is being parroted. And wasting time on petty arguments about Coca-Cola’s political speech rights or the lofty constitutional right of entry to a Major League ballpark is just part and parcel of the GOP forest/trees playbook. National political efforts to suppress the vote are happening everywhere, and it goes beyond just voter ID and Sunday voting. Georgia is Texas. Texas is New Hampshire. And New Hampshire is Florida. They are all different flavors of the same problem. That problem, believe it or not, is bigger even than Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola. And right now it’s more American than both too.

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