Evan Katz

Over the past few days, I’ve read several op-eds—including this one by Kevin Blackistone in The Washington Post, this one by Jemele Hill in The Atlantic, and this one by Terence Moore of CNN—arguing for major professional sports to boycott hosting events in Georgia in protest of the state’s new restrictive voting law, SB 202. In particular, each of the authors calls upon Major League Baseball to relocate the sport’s All-Star Game from Atlanta in July as a means of placing pressure on conservative lawmakers to reverse course.

SB 202, the “Election Integrity Act of 2021,” eliminates no-excuse absentee voting and limits the amount of time voters have to request and return absentee ballots. It also introduces new voter ID requirements and limits the number of secure ballot drop boxes. Controversially, it would give state officials the ability to override local election boards, affording a Republican-majority General Assembly more control over Democratic-majority precincts.

The provisions of SB 202 clearly work in Republicans’ favor and are a blatant effort to make it more difficult to vote in Georgia. The bill disproportionately harms minority voters, whose huge turnout in the 2020 elections helped propel Joe Biden, Jon Ossoff, and Raphael Warnock to victory. Furthermore, SB 202 perpetuates the “big lie” that there was rampant fraud in November that resulted from an unusually high volume of mail-in votes (there wasn’t).

Republicans are acting out of self-preservation and attempting to cling to power in a state that’s slowly slipping away from them. This fits a national trend. As a whole, the GOP has shown an alarming disdain for democracy with how it has approached electoral integrity, from proponents of the big lie and its response to the Capitol riots to lawmakers who push new voting restrictions. Republicans’ harmful and racially motivated actions should not go unpunished; there needs to be a political cost for supporting this kind of legislation.

However, voting rights activists should be careful about calling for boycotts of Georgia. Taking away valuable economic activity—like major sporting events—unduly punishes the bluest city in the state. This most directly impacts the voters in Metro Atlanta who delivered unified control of the federal government to Democrats, not the rural, white conservatives who support SB 202. In fact, conservatives could stand to benefit, drumming up support by rebuking “liberal elites” and “special interests” for meddling in state politics. Boycotts would also undermine Atlanta’s large black middle class as well as low wage workers whose livelihoods depend on these major events, hurting the very people activists are trying to protect.

Obviously, losing the MLB All-Star Game alone wouldn’t ruin Atlanta’s economy. But the combined effect of missing out on several major events, like future Final Fours, Super Bowls, or the 2026 World Cup, would put the city at a disadvantage. The effects would be even worse if the film industry or any of Atlanta’s 16 Fortune 500 companies followed through on threats to leave Georgia.

Boycotts operate under the presumption that enough pressure will result in a change in behavior. Activists hope that, with the sting of missing out on major sources of revenue, either Georgia Republicans will blink and repeal SB 202 or national embarrassment will encourage voters to buck Brian Kemp and the GOP in 2022. I’m skeptical that either will happen; Republicans seem eager to dig their heels in the dirt on “election integrity” and may be willing to sacrifice some marquee sporting events and endure some economic hardships to ensure the party maintains control of the state. I also doubt enough seats will flip in 2022 to turn the gerrymandered General Assembly blue. (But I was wrong about 2020, so what do I know?)

Of course, as someone who grew up in Atlanta and closely follows all of the city’s major professional sports teams, I have a vested interest in Atlanta remaining a destination for championships and all-star games. To me, the short-term costs to the city are a hefty price to pay for what will likely be a protracted battle over voting rights. But I’m speaking from a position of privilege; SB 202 doesn’t suppress my vote, and voting rights might just be important enough to incur those costs.

I should also note that boycotts have historically had success in forcing social change. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956 followed Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. Montgomery’s Black community mobilized and brought an end to legal segregation of the city’s bus system. In 2010, tourism and convention boycotts cost Arizona over $140 million in lost revenues in response to its draconian immigration bill, leading the legislature to back off after the Supreme Court invalidated many of the bill’s provisions. In 2017, North Carolina rescinded its controversial “bathroom bill” after the NCAA moved Division I men’s basketball tournament games and the NBA relocated its All-Star Game from Charlotte. Maybe a similar boycott of Georgia will change enough minds at the margins to force Republicans to backtrack.

That being said, there are more effective tactics to circumvent this new law that inflict less collateral damage on Democrats’ own. Activists should double down on pressuring moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema into supporting filibuster reform. With the filibuster still in place, Republicans can thwart any voting rights legislation despite the fact that Democrats control Congress. Bills like H.R. 1 would supersede state laws and deal with the problem head-on, but they can’t become law with the 60-vote threshold still in place in the Senate.

Georgia’s largest companies—including Coca-Cola and Delta—need to take a clearer stand against SB 202 instead of sitting on the sidelines. Ed Bastian and Arthur Blank have both made statements against the new law, but they should go a step further by refusing to contribute to any state Republicans who supported the bill. They should also actively support community organizations dedicated to protecting voting rights—and get involved themselves.

Regular people need to continue organizing. Georgians should call their representatives at both the federal and state levels to voice their disapproval with SB 202. Voters, particularly those from minority communities, should make it a priority to turn out and vote in upcoming elections, no matter how difficult; maybe that will flip enough seats to change the political calculus post-2022.

Ultimately, Georgia Republicans don’t speak for the whole state. A plurality of Georgians supports making it easier to vote, as evidenced by election results in November and January. And yet, like with the 2019 abortion bill, the 2017 campus carry push, the 2016 religious freedom bill, and the 2011 immigration bill, the Georgia GOP continues to do all it can to ruin things for the rest of us. If major league sports, the film industry, and large companies end up boycotting Georgia, the whole state will suffer, and Republicans will have no one to blame but themselves.