By Uday Sampath Kumar and Manojna Maddipatla
(Reuters) - In the toughest corporate stand yet against the new voting law in Georgia, dozens of Black executives, including Merck & Co Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Frazier, called on their peers in U.S. companies to push back against wider restrictions on voting rights.
The campaign, announced on Wednesday and being led by Frazier and former American Express Co CEO Kenneth Chenault, urges companies - so far largely silent on the Georgia law - to look past appearing partisan and publicly stand against it and similar voting restrictions being pursued in other states.
"We're calling on corporate America to publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation and all measures designed to limit Americans' ability to vote," Chenault told Reuters.
"American companies need to take a stand."
The Republican-backed Georgia law strengthened identification requirements for absentee ballots, shortened early voting periods for runoffs and made it a misdemeanor for members of the public to offer food and water to voters waiting in line.
"People have simply raised the specter of voter fraud and based on that (lawmakers) are restricting the ability of lawful eligible voters to vote and they're doing it in a way that will disproportionately affect non-white voters," Frazier said in an interview.
Civil rights groups have launched legal fights against the new law, arguing that the measures are intended to make it harder for people – particularly Black voters – to cast ballots.
Meanwhile, Atlanta-based corporations Delta Air Lines Inc and Coca-Cola Co are facing calls for boycotts from activists who said they need to do more to oppose the law.
Coca-Cola has said it was disappointed with the outcome in Georgia and would press for improvements to election laws, while Delta said it was talking with elected officials to express its views about a fair and secure election process."The final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta's values," Delta Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian wrote in a company memo on Wednesday.
Frazier, who is stepping down as head of Merck in June, has been outspoken on social and political issues before. He was the first CEO to leave former President Donald Trump's American Manufacturing Council, saying he was taking a stand against intolerance and extremism, and called out racial inequities across U.S. society after the death of George Floyd.
A letter supporting Frazier and Chenault's campaign was signed by 72 Black executives including former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, former Citigroup chairman Richard Parsons and Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West.
(Reporting by Uday Sampath in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Bernard Orr)