MLB Pulls All-Star Game From Atlanta, Georgia in Response to Voting Law

Major League Baseball sent a warning shot on Friday to Republicans considering new restrictions on voting laws, pulling its summer All-Star game out of suburban Atlanta in a rebuke to Georgia’s new election restrictions that will make it harder to vote in the state’s urban areas.

The decision by the baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, came after days of lobbying from civil rights groups and the Major League Baseball Players Association. The action is likely to put additional pressure on other leading organizations and corporations to consider pulling business out of Georgia, a move that both Republicans and Democrats in the state oppose despite fiercely disagreeing about the new voting law.

Baseball’s decision comes as other states are moving closer to passing new laws that would further restrict voting. In Texas, home to two professional baseball teams, the State Senate passed a law this week that would limit early voting hours, ban drive-through voting, add restrictions to absentee voting and make it illegal for local election officials to mail absentee ballot applications to voters, even if they qualify. In Florida, also home to two major league teams, the State Legislature has introduced a bill that would severely limit drop boxes.

The law in Georgia, signed last week by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, was the first passed in a battleground state that brought a host of new restrictions to voting since the 2020 election. It added new identification requirements for absentee voting, limited the use of drop boxes, granted more authority over elections to the legislature and made it a misdemeanor for some groups to offer food or water to voters waiting in line.

Earlier this week, President Biden joined a growing call for the relocation of the game because of the new voting law that he and civil rights groups predicted will have an outsize impact on people of color.

In a statement, Mr. Manfred said that after conversations with teams, players, former stars and players union officials he had concluded that “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft.”

Baseball said it was finalizing details about new locations for this year’s All-Star Game and the draft. The league faced the unsettling prospect of celebrating an All-Star week dedicated to former Atlanta Braves great Henry Aaron, a Black baseball pioneer who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, against the backdrop of a Georgia elections overhaul widely seen as targeting Black voters.

Few major companies or groups, including Major League Baseball, publicly opposed against the Georgia bill during the weeks it was moving through the state legislature. Delta and Coca-Cola, both based in Georgia, declined to take a position on the legislation; since its passage, both have issued strongly worded statements. The lack of a concerted effort by companies to stop the Georgia bill before passage now looms as an object lesson for business and sports in other states; in Texas, American Airlines and Dell have denounced the bill moving in the legislature. Republicans have shrugged off that criticism so far.

Mr. Kemp, who has been forcefully defending the law in multiple television appearances this week, criticized the decision to move the All-Star Game and tried to pin the blame on state Democrats for their vocal criticism of the voting restrictions.

“Today, Major League Baseball caved to fear, political opportunism, and liberal lies,” Mr. Kemp said in a statement, calling out Mr. Biden and Stacey Abrams, the titular head of the state’s Democrats. He continued: “I will not back down. Georgians will not be bullied. We will continue to stand up for secure, accessible, fair elections.”

Georgia Democrats had not called for a boycott of the game but were building pressure on Major League Baseball and other Georgia-based corporations to oppose the state’s new voting law.

Ms. Abrams, who ran against Mr. Kemp for governor in 2018 and may challenge him again next year, said Friday that she is “disappointed” baseball pulled its All-Star Game but said she is “proud of their stance on voting rights.”

For now, the fallout from baseball’s decision is more political and civic than financial. The impact on the Georgia economy of losing the All-Star Game is minimal, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College, because most of the tickets would be sold locally and many of the typical festivities would likely be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But, Mr. Zimbalist said, Major League Baseball is taking a significant risk by taking a move that could alienate conservatives in its fan base. Professional basketball and football each saw organized boycotts from conservatives after the leagues embraced the Black Lives Matter movement last year.

“There will be a backlash,” Professor Zimbalist said. “I doubt very much that progressive people who didn’t like baseball will start liking baseball, but its quite possible that conservative people who do like baseball will move away from it.”

While the National Basketball Association and the N.C.A.A., which governs college sports, have often been on the forefront of pushing progressive politics — the N.B.A. moved its own all-star game out of Charlotte and the N.C.A.A. pulled championships out of the state after North Carolina Republicans enacted a “bathroom ban” on transgender people — baseball has rarely made a political statement as significant as moving its midsummer classic out of Georgia.

The Associated Press in 2017 estimated that North Carolina would have lost $3.7 billion over 12 years had it not repealed its law. Once North Carolina lawmakers repealed it, the N.B.A. awarded Charlotte the 2019 basketball all-star game.

The N.C.A.A. has declined to comment about the new Georgia voting law. The Southeastern Conference, which has 14 schools from South Carolina to Texas and plays its annual football championship game in Atlanta, has not addressed it.

Before baseball’s announcement, top Georgia Democrats had publicly opposed boycotting their state over the Republican voting law, instead urging companies to fight against it and calling on Congress to pass H.R. 1, a federal voting rights bill that could override parts of the Georgia law.

Senator Jon Ossoff, a Democrat elected in a January runoff election, said companies upset about the law should “stop any financial support to Georgia’s Republican Party.”

Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who faces re-election in 2022, blamed the state’s Republicans. “It is not the people of Georgia or the workers of Georgia who crafted this law, it is politicians seeking to retain power at the expense of Georgians’ voices,” he said. “Today’s decision by M.L.B. is the unfortunate consequence of these politicians’ actions.”

Many Democratic members of the state legislature have been similarly against boycotts in Georgia. “Stop with this boycott nonsense,” wrote Jen Jordan, a Democratic senator from outside of Atlanta, on Twitter last week. “I would rather people and companies use their economic power in this state for change rather than not come here at all.”

At least one Georgia Democrat, state Representative Teri Anulewicz, whose Cobb County district includes the Braves’ stadium, expressed disappointment that it would no longer host the game.

Georgia Republicans have scoffed at the prospect of boycotts. After Coca-Cola objected to the law, David Ralston, the State House Speaker, told reporters he drank a Pepsi, an act of heresy in Coke-dominated Atlanta.

Mr. Biden, in a television interview with ESPN ahead of M.L.B.’s opening day on Thursday, said he would “strongly support” moving the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. He called Georgia’s law and similarly restrictive voting bills that Republicans are advancing in almost every state “Jim Crow on steroids.”

In an interview earlier this week with The Associated Press, Mr. Manfred, the baseball commissioner had hinted that he was strongly considering moving the game but declined to make any firm commitments.

“I am talking to various constituencies within the game and I’m just not going beyond that in terms of what I would consider or not consider,” Mr. Manfred said at the time.

The Braves franchise, which left downtown Atlanta for a new publicly-funded stadium in suburban Cobb County in 2017, said in a statement that it is “deeply disappointed” in the league’s decision to move the game.

Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ union, has said the union was willing to discuss pulling the game, scheduled for July 13.

The Players Alliance, a nonprofit formed after the killing of George Floyd that now includes more than 150 former and current Black professional baseball players, issued a statement in support of Major League Baseball’s decision.

“We want to make our voice heard loud and clear in our opposition of the recent Georgia legislation that not only disproportionately disenfranchises the Black community, but also paves the way for other states to pass similarly harmful laws based largely on widespread falsehoods and disinformation,” the group wrote in a statement on Twitter.

“We will not be silenced,” the group said. “We won’t back down in the fight for racial equality. We will never stop breaking barriers to the ballot box.”

Reporting was contributed by James Wagner, Kevin Draper, Alan Blinder and Joe Drape.

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