Photo: A Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2020. Almost a year later, lawmakers are pushing legislation that would result in voter suppression across the Peach State.
In the run-up to election day in 2020, Georgia’s professional basketball, baseball, football and soccer organizations helped to amplify nationwide get-out-the-vote efforts. The Atlanta Falcons’ high-profile “Rise Up and Vote” game on Oct. 25 is just one example. Now, their commitment to free and fair elections is facing a new test, as state lawmakers push legislation that makes Georgia the face of state-sanctioned, race-based voter suppression in America.
So far, Georgia’s professional sports teams have kept out of the fray. However, money talks, and the fate of new sports betting legislation may stir them into action.
More than 250 voter suppression bills are circulating in Republican-controlled statehouses this year, and Georgia has become a particular focus of attention. With the state’s legislative session set to end on March 31, all eyes are on a series of Republican-sponsored bills aimed at making it harder for many Democratic-leaning Georgia voters to cast a ballot.
The voter suppression bills have already provoked a massive pushback from voting rights advocates in Georgia, who have been leaning on the state’s leading corporate citizens to take a stand.
Most of the pressure has focused on such Georgia-based companies as Aflac, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Home Depot. All of these companies eventually responded by issuing statements in support of voting rights in general. However, they mostly fell short of criticizing specific elements in the proposed legislation, including new ID requirements and restrictions on early voting and vote-by-mail ballots.
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One company speaking out is Salesforce. The company was not among the first to issue a statement, but it finally came through on March 16 and targeted specific legislation.
“A person’s right to cast their ballot is the foundation of our democracy,” Salesforce wrote on its official Twitter account. “Georgia HB 531 would limit trustworthy, safe & equal access to voting by restricting early voting & eliminating provisional ballots. That’s why Salesforce opposes HB 531 as it stands.”
The Metro Atlanta and Georgia Chambers of Commerce have also spoken out against the voter suppression legislation.
The corporate response may be too little, too late to help prevent voter suppression legislation from reaching the desk of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Now, the pressure is on the governor to exercise his veto power.
In an interesting twist, voting rights advocates may be able to leverage sports betting to sway his pen.
“One potential casualty is a measure to legalize sports betting that requires bipartisan support and that seemed, to some supporters at least, on the cusp of success in Georgia,” they wrote. “The House vote on the issue last week was delayed by Democratic leaders who say they’re withholding support both to demand new concessions, such as provisions for minority vendors, and also to protest the elections restrictions.”
That is where Georgia’s professional sports leagues come in.
Bringing legalized online sports betting to Georgia has been a decades-long effort on the part of its supporters. All four of the state’s leading professional sports franchises recently stepped up the pressure to push it over the finish line.
Under the banner of the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, the Atlanta Braves, Falcons, Hawks and United organizations have pumped more than $272,000 into state campaigns in support of bills legalizing online and mobile sports betting since 2019.
With the coveted prize of legalized online sports betting finally in view, Georgia’s pro sports franchises are most likely doing their best to avoid ruffling feathers in the statehouse, or in the governor’s office. That could explain why they have failed to take a stand on the voter suppression bills.
However, the situation is dripping with irony compared to their get-out-the-vote activities last year.
The Atlanta Falcons, for example, promoted the aforementioned “Rise Up and Vote” game with a message from franchise owner Arthur M. Blank. He specifically lauded the role of early voting and vote-by-mail, the very elements now targeted by Republican lawmakers to suppress the vote.
The United FC, another franchise under the Blank umbrella, used the same message in support of the team’s 2020 voter registration drive. The Atlanta Falcons went a step farther, donating the use of their venue for early voting in advance of election day.
The Atlanta Braves were notably absent from a voter drive rundown promoted by Major League Baseball leading up to election day. However, the Braves, like the other three franchises, did promote Black History Month this past February.
This month, professional sports franchises in Georgia have a chance to make history and take a stand against voter suppression. But the clock is ticking.
The ball is in their court.
Image credit: Ben Dutton/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.