By Amy Tennery
(Reuters) -Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred on Friday ordered the sport to relocate its 2021 All-Star Game and amateur player draft out of Atlanta in protest over Georgia's new voting restrictions.
The removal of the lucrative All-Star Game marks one of the most significant and high-profile gestures after Georgia last week strengthened identification requirements for absentee ballots, shortened early voting periods for runoffs and made it a crime to offer food and water to voters waiting in line.
"I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year's All-Star Game and MLB Draft," Manfred said in a written statement.
"Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box."
The voting law, which was endorsed by the state's Republican Governor Brian Kemp, faces legal challenges from civil rights groups and others who say it aims to suppress voting among Black people and other racial minorities who tend to vote Democratic.
Kemp said in a written statement MLB's leadership had "caved to fear, political opportunism, and liberal lies" and later told a television interview the state would not bow to corporate pressure.
"They're going to come after your ballgame. They're going to boycott your business if you don't agree with their way of life," Kemp told Fox News. "We are not backing down."
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has been sharply critical of the law, recently telling ESPN it was "Jim Crow on steroids," and welcomed the decision, according to a White House official. Jim Crow refers to racial segregation practices prevalent in the South from the late 19th century through much of the 20th century.
"He said earlier this week that if the decision was made by Major League Baseball to move the All-Star Game, he would certainly support that decision – and now that MLB has made that choice, he certainly does," the official said.
Manfred said the league took the decision after consulting with clubs as well as current and former players. He said it was finalizing plans for a new host city.
"Fair access to voting continues to have our game's unwavering support," said Manfred, a day after the league opened its 2021 regular season.
The decision set off strong reactions from across the political spectrum.
"What a pathetic and weak decision by @MLB to give in to the Radical Left's false attack on Georgia voting laws!" Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of neighboring South Carolina wrote on Twitter. "I hope the people of Georgia remember this in 2022 when they will have a chance to check/stop the Biden agenda in the Georgia U.S. Senate race."
Stacey Abrams, an influential voting rights activist and fierce critic of the bill who had nevertheless cautioned against boycotts, said she was disappointed the game would be moved but "proud" of the league's stance on voting rights.
Abrams, who blamed voter suppression for her narrow loss to Kemp in the 2018 race for Georgia governor, said on Twitter that Republican leaders had "traded economic opportunity for suppression" and she urged "events & productions to come & speak out or stay & fight."
Former President Donald Trump called for a boycott of "baseball and all of the woke companies that are interfering with Free and Fair Elections."
"Baseball is already losing tremendous numbers of fans, and now they leave Atlanta with their All-Star Game because they are afraid of Radical Left Democrats who do not want voter I.D., which is desperately needed, to have anything to do with our elections," he said in a statement.
"Just as elections have consequences, so do the actions of those who are elected," Atlanta's Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on Twitter. "Unfortunately, the removal of the @MLB All Star game from GA is likely the 1st of many dominoes to fall."
The fight is emerging as the latest flashpoint between corporate America and states over voting rights. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co and Delta Air Lines joined a bid by U.S. companies to challenge the restrictions on Wednesday.
The Atlanta Braves, who were to host the All-Star Game at their four-year-old Truist Park, said they were deeply disappointed.
"The Braves organization will continue to stress the importance of equal voting opportunities," the team said in a written statement. "Unfortunately, businesses, employees, and fans in Georgia are the victims of this decision."
Speculation began almost immediately over which ballpark would assume hosting duties for the All-Star Game, an annual tradition popular with fans.
Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom offered his state shortly after the league made its announcement, writing on Twitter: "Hey @MLB — feel free to give us a call. In California we actually work to expand voter access -- not prevent it."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Steve Holland and David Shepardson in Washington, D.C.; Additonal reporting by Daniel Trotta in Vista, California, Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, D.C. and Arvind Sriram and Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru; Writing by Amy Tennery; Editing by Chris Reese, Daniel Wallis and William Mallard)