As the battle over a new Georgia law imposing identification requirements for mail ballots and other voting limits raged this month, Republicans in Texas knew they would be next — and acted quickly to try to head off the swelling number of corporations that had begun to scrutinize even more restrictive proposals being considered there and around the country.
Gov. Greg Abbott angrily declined to throw the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opener, accusing Major League Baseball, which had announced plans to pull its All-Star Game from Atlanta, of buying into a “false narrative” about Georgia’s new law. The next day, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded to an early trickle of corporate statements denouncing the proposals under consideration in Austin, calling the critics, including Texas-based American Airlines and Dell Technologies, “a nest of liars.”
“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said in a separate statement.
And on Wednesday, Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, the chief sponsor of one of the voting bills, proposed financial penalties against entities that publicly threaten “any adverse action against this state” in protest against election legislation.
To many of the companies and voting-rights advocates, the message is clear: Some Republicans have no plans to back down, and businesses that continue to speak out could face retribution.
While hundreds of well-known brands and corporate leaders joined this month in a statement condemning “discriminatory legislation” that restricts voter access, so far just a few companies have spoken out publicly in opposition to the proposed bills moving through the Texas legislature, the next major voting-rights battleground.
Hanging in the balance are measures that would drastically curtail access to the polls, critics say, and could disproportionately affect voters of color who took advantage of expanded voting hours in Houston’s Harris County last fall.
The outcome will test the resolve of corporations that dipped into the national fight over voting and now find themselves in a bind — caught between liberal activists demanding action and Republicans who control economic policy in red states. The result has been a quiet campaign by the business community to try to change legislation behind the scenes, and uncertainty about whether such a strategy will work.
“Some companies have come out in support of voting rights and others have gotten more skittish,” said Sarah Labowitz, policy director at the ACLU of Texas. “The governor and lieutenant governor have been very clear about punishing corporations that speak out. The companies need safety in numbers and to speak out as a group.”
Spokespeople for Abbott and Patrick did not respond to requests for comment.
The Washington Post reached out to a dozen companies or business associations that are headquartered in Texas or have a significant presence there. Most declined to speak on the record about the voting legislation.
GOP lawmakers in dozens of states are now pushing new voting measures in the name of election security, under intense pressure from supporters who echo former President Donald Trump’s false claims that rampant fraud tainted the 2020 election.
The effort in Texas comes after the state logged record turnout in the 2020 election, including huge surges in early voting in cities including Houston and Austin.
That is what the GOP is aiming to prevent with new laws, voting-rights advocates say.
“They took a page right out of the Jim Crow playbook,” said Val Benavidez of the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal coalition of religious and community leaders. “They’re making voting lines longer, shutting people out and keeping turnout low. It’s a plan to stay in power. And these restrictions disproportionately affect Texans of color, many of whom live in urban areas who need more options for voting, not less.”
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Cain, the chief sponsor of the main House election bill, did not respond to requests for comment. Before he was appointed chairman of the House Elections Committee, he volunteered with the Trump campaign’s legal team in Pennsylvania, where it sought to overturn President Biden’s win.
In a news conference with Abbott last month, Cain said the idea that voter fraud is a “myth” has been disproved, though he offered no evidence. He also suggested that voter suppression is a myth.
“You know the only form of voter suppression is when an illegitimate voter, an ineligible voter, casts a ballot,” he said. “When an ineligible voter casts a ballot, what they’re actually doing is they are silencing the vote of an American citizen, of someone who is eligible to vote. It’s wrong, and we should stop it.”
Texas lawmakers have proposed dozens of bills that would curtail voting, but two in particular — Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6 — have received the most attention because of the breadth of changes each would make to the state’s voting laws.
The proposals would curtail many of the election practices instituted by local election officials in 2020 to expand access during the pandemic, including drive-up voting and after-hours voting. Most of the targeted practices were deployed in heavily Democratic Harris County, home of Houston, and were credited with expanding access during the pandemic, particularly for working Americans who sometimes struggle to find time for voting during business hours.
The House bill goes further by criminalizing any expansion of voting practices not authorized by state law.
The Texas Senate has approved its bill, and the House is scheduled to take up its own legislation in the coming weeks, with Republicans hoping that a single measure emerges following negotiations between the two chambers.
“They’re trying to illegalize the things that we did here in Harris County to make voting easier and more accessible and safer in 2020,” said Chris Hollins, who was the Harris County clerk during last year’s election and implemented many of those changes.
Hollins said 130,000 voters took advantage of drive-through voting, and an additional 10,000 voters cast ballots during a 24-hour voting marathon the county offered in the final week before Election Day.
An analysis of the Harris County vote showed that voters of color made up more than half of those who used drive-through early voting and the 24-hour early-voting window, Hollins said. That was a higher share than in early voting overall, when Black and Hispanic voters accounted for just 38% of all voters, he said.
The GOP proposals would also prohibit election officials from proactively sending absentee ballot applications to voters, which Harris and other counties did last year. They would ban unmanned drop boxes and private donations for the administration of elections without unanimous approval from the secretary of state, governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.
And they would create new hurdles for voters who need assistance to vote, requiring the person helping them to fill out a form explaining their relationship to the voter and reason for the assistance. Anyone driving three or more non-relatives to the polls also would have to complete a form.
Many of these restrictions would bring new criminal penalties to violators.
All of it, critics say, would limit or prohibit voting options used by hundreds of thousands of Texans last year.
The measures would also grant new powers to partisan poll watchers, allowing them to videotape voters who have disabilities receiving assistance as they cast their ballots, and curtail the ability of election workers to police poll watchers who appear to intimidate or obstruct voters.
That provision has drawn fierce outcry from voting-rights activists, who said it turns election security over to partisans in an echo of 20th-century Jim Crow laws in the South that sought to intimidate voters of color.
“We’d be returning to an era where one party controls election integrity,” said Kathryn Sadasivan, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The proposal coincides with an effort by Harris County Republicans to recruit 10,000 poll watchers for the 2022 midterm elections that emerged around the same time GOP officials from the county were urging state lawmakers to approve the new poll watcher provisions.
In leaked video published this month by Common Cause Texas, a man who identifies himself as a GOP official in Harris County called for the creation of an “election integrity brigade” and pointed on a map to Houston’s heavily Black urban core as he asked for volunteers with “the confidence and courage to come down here” because “this is where the fraud is occurring.”
In a statement to The Post earlier this month, the Harris County Republican Party said Common Cause was “blatantly mischaracterizing a grassroots election worker recruitment video.” The party chair, Cindy Siegel, accused the group of trying “to bully and intimidate Republicans.”
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Republican supporters of the measures say their purpose is to eliminate fraud and to standardize election practices across Texas. Abbott, the governor, declared “election integrity” among his “emergency items” for the 2021 legislative session, meaning lawmakers could act more quickly than with other bills.
“We must have trust and confidence in elections,” Abbott said during a news briefing in March in support of the legislative proposals. “One way to do that is to make sure we reduce the potential for voter fraud in our elections.”
Yet Republicans have offered no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election in Texas. In that same briefing, Abbott acknowledged: “I don’t know how many if any elections in the state of Texas in 2020 were altered because of voter fraud.” Patrick offered a $1 million reward for evidence leading to voter fraud convictions — but hasn’t announced a taker.
Similarly, the state’s attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton, dedicated nearly twice as much staff time to voter fraud in 2020 as he did two years earlier — but resolved just 16 prosecutions, none of them involving jail time, according to the Houston Chronicle. Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Democratic lawmakers and voting-rights advocates are hoping Texas-based corporations will use their muscle to help prevent restrictive measures from passing.
“Having the business community weigh in, it’s a big deal,” said Jessica González, a Democratic state representative from Dallas who serves as vice chair of the House Elections Committee and has been talking to leaders from numerous companies about opposing bill proposals in Texas. González said that witnesses from across Texas sat through an all-night hearing in early April to testify against House Bill 6 — speaking before a committee with no Black members.
“These companies embrace fairness and inclusion and diversity, and they want to make sure their employers are empowered and their voices are being heard,” she said.
Earlier this month, American Airlines and the CEO of Dell Technologies voiced opposition to specific bills being considered in the Texas legislature.
In its April 1 statement, American said: “As a Texas-based business, we must stand up for the rights of our team members and customers who call Texas home, and honor the sacrifices made by generations of Americans to protect and expand the right to vote.”
But since issuing initial statements — and being lambasted by the lieutenant governor — the companies have said little publicly.
Others that signed onto the voting-rights statement organized last week by the Black Economic Alliance — such as PayPal and Apple — declined to comment on the Texas bills.
Behind the scenes, however, companies and business associations are trying to prevent some of the most restrictive measures from passing, according to representatives of several corporations, including American Airlines and HP, the computer and printer company that is headquartered in California but has a large hub in Houston.
Among the provisions that corporate leaders have protested most vocally are those that criminalize behavior among volunteers and election judges, such as someone assisting another voter to fill out a mail ballot or a county election official failing to correct a mistake in the voter rolls.
Microsoft officials made that point in an email sent to GOP lawmakers and obtained by The Post. “We are concerned that HB 6 could criminalize honest mistakes made by volunteer poll workers,” the email states, “which would give us pause before encouraging our employees to volunteer and serve in those roles.”
A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed the validity of the email and said the company is committed to working with lawmakers to expand voting access.
California-based Patagonia, which operates retail stores in Texas, has distributed to other companies a long list of objections to several proposals in an effort to encourage them to weigh in with lawmakers.
The document, titled “Texas Voter Suppression Analysis,” describes the bill as being “at the forefront of the effort to suppress voting rights in Texas,” according to a copy obtained by The Post. It criticizes virtually all the major provisions of the bill, including the bans on drive-through voting and drop boxes, financial penalties for violations, a requirement that mailed ballots arrive four days before Election Day and a witness signature requirement for mailed ballots.
Corley Kenna, a spokesperson for Patagonia, said the company is “working to protect and strengthen voting rights today because some state and federal lawmakers seem intent on making it harder for eligible voters to cast their ballot.”
In addition, several companies are planning to send a letter to Texas Republicans in the coming days objecting to some provisions, according to several corporate representatives and voting-rights advocates.
How aggressively they engage in the fight remains to be seen.
Corporate leaders have only recently embraced the cause of voting rights, which exploded into the public consciousness in the last few years, in part because of Trump’s attacks on voting and in part because the Black Lives Matter movement has shined new light on discrimination in elections.
In doing so, they have taken fire from the left and right.
Some liberal groups have lamented the corporate leaders who have spoken in broad strokes about voter protections without publicly taking on specific legislation in the states. In Georgia, Atlanta-based businesses including Delta Air Lines worked to change legislation behind the scenes, but many voting-rights advocates still pilloried the final law — and pressured companies to do more next time.
Meanwhile, corporations have been criticized by Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who accused them of acting like a “woke parallel government.” In Georgia, GOP lawmakers sought to revoke a fuel-tax rebate for Delta and to launch a boycott of Coca-Cola after the two Atlanta-based companies spoke out against the law there.
“Many companies watched what the Georgia legislature threatened to do with Delta, or boycott Coca-Cola, and said, ‘The risk is too great,’ ” said Richard Eidlin, national policy director for Business for America, a nonprofit coalition that promotes democratic engagement by corporations.
Instead, he said, they are taking the posture, “We’re just going to sign a letter about the principles of fair elections and voter access, but avoid for now getting into the specifics of particular legislation.”