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June 17, 2021

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Texas companies break silence on voting restrictions

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People wait in line to vote at  Dan Ruiz Branch Library on November 3, 2020, in Austin, Texas.
People wait in line to vote at Dan Ruiz Branch Library on November 3, 2020, in Austin, Texas. (Montinique Monroe/Getty Images/TNS) Photo Gallery

AUSTIN, Texas — When much of the Texas business community rallied against a polarizing “bathroom bill” four years ago, Brett Hurt, a prominent chief executive officer in the Austin tech world, was on the front lines. He fired off dozens of social media posts, engaged in conference call strategy sessions and never missed an opportunity to strike out against the Republican-backed legislation, which would have restricted transgender people’s access to bathrooms.

Now the 49-year-old creator of six tech startups is re-engaged against another GOP priority: legislation, which might be voted on as early as this week, that would impose new election restrictions like those advancing through legislatures in more than 40 states.

“This is much bigger than the bathroom bill,” said Hurt, CEO of data.world, a data cataloguing service. “This is fundamentally attacking democracy.”

Architects of the Republican-crafted measures describe them as improvements to prevent voter fraud. But opponents say they are designed to suppress voting by Democratic-leaning constituencies, especially communities of color.

Voting rights activists called on major corporations to speak out against the legislation, but American Airlines in Fort Worth and Dell Technologies in Austin were the only major corporate entities in Texas to do so — at least initially.

Now others are joining them in taking a public stand.

More than 50 business leaders united in a coalition called Fair Elections Texas on Tuesday announced their opposition to any measures that would restrict voter access. And as many 175 Houston business leaders, in a letter to Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, said the bills advancing through the legislature would impose hardships on voters and “inevitably damage” Houston’s ability to attract business, workers and special events.

The dust-up in Texas is emblematic of the conundrum corporations are facing around the country as they try to preserve their relationships with business-friendly GOP state lawmakers while heeding the calls of many shareholders, employees and customers to publicly support voting rights.

In Texas, it took some time for most of the corporate opponents to speak out — reticence that might be at least partly explained by the lashing that GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gave American Airlines after it spoke up.

“Voter security, not suppression,” Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, said in defense of the legislation’s intent. He mocked American Airlines’ government affairs representative for having “the audacity” to call his office to inform him of the company’s position while declaring, “This isn’t personal.”

“Well, let me tell you what, Mr. American Airlines, I take it personally,” Patrick said during a news conference in the Texas Capitol. “You were in essence, between the lines, calling us racist. And that will not stand.”

Patrick called on corporations to stay out of politics, and in a separate press release said that Texans “are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy.”

The Texas legislation would outlaw drive-thru voting and prohibit local officials from sending out unrequested mail-in ballot applications, measures that local officials implemented in predominately Democratic Harris County (which encompasses Houston) during the 2020 elections to ease voting access. Other provisions would standardize voting hours statewide, give poll watchers more freedom to move within a polling place and require live video of counting stations in large counties.

“This bill makes it harder for Texans to vote, plain and simple,” said former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who left office in November and is now helping lead Democratic opposition to the legislation. “That’s bad law and bad policy.”

Hollins clashed with Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both Republicans, over his election initiatives in Harris County. He said corporate leaders fear the new restrictions would make it more difficult for their employees to vote and could lead to a costly backlash against Texas.

Hollins and other opponents also maintain that the proposed voter integrity legislation is a solution in search of a problem, since studies show that voter fraud is exceedingly rare. From 2015 to 2020, the Texas attorney general’s office received 197 election fraud complaints out of tens of millions of votes cast across the state, according to KHOU, a Houston-based outlet.

Last week, 10 members of the Greater Houston Partnership, the region’s largest chamber of commerce, sent a letter to the president of the group calling for a public statement against the legislation, the Houston Chronicle reported.

“New election legislation in Texas should expand, instead of limit, options for civic participation,” reads a proposed statement included in the letter. “Certain provisions of these bills are contrary to these objectives and should be eliminated or modified.”

At the national level, hundreds of corporate chieftains, including dozens of prominent Black CEOs, have taken a united stand against states imposing new voting restrictions, signing onto a statement in a two-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other news outlets. The top executives from more than 100 companies participated in a mid-April conference call to discuss strategy, including curbing investments in states permitting the legislative changes, according to news reports.

The approval of new voting restrictions in Georgia prompted Major League Baseball to relocate its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. Georgia-based companies such as Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines also denounced the bill, prompting conservative supporters of the law to threaten boycotts.

In 2017, Texas corporations were outspoken in their opposition to the so-called bathroom bill. But the state’s business community initially declined to take a similar stand against the election legislation — at least publicly.

The Texas Association of Business, which led the charge against the bathroom bill, has not taken sides in the current confrontation beyond a noncommittal statement issued by Glenn Hamer, the organization’s CEO.

“Texas is focused on ensuring access to voting, while at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the ballot box,” Hamer said. “As state leaders work to achieve even greater security and participation in the electoral process, the Texas business community encourages the legislature to work in a bipartisan fashion to meet these goals.”

The companies that announced their opposition on Tuesday included Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Etsy, Patagonia, Warby Parker, Gearbox and several chambers of commerce representing Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ communities.

In their statement, the business leaders said they oppose “any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot” and said that Texas elections shoudl be “convenient, transparent and secure.

American Airlines announced its opposition early last month, hours after a late-night Senate vote on one of the two major voting bills, asserting that the legislation contains provisions that would “limit voting access.”

“We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the company said in a news release.

Patrick accused the company of failing to read the legislation. American Airlines communications manager Stacy Day said that wasn’t true, and that the company “is engaged to ensure that Texas state lawmakers understand our concerns.”

American’s position also sparked grumbling among Republican lawmakers who noted that the airline, like other companies, often lobbies lawmakers on behalf of its legislative priorities and for favorable tax and budget policies.

“These companies … darken our doors all the time, asking for this special treatment or that special perk or exemption or grant, and it’s supposed to be all about business development,” said state Rep. Tom Oliverson, a Republican from the Houston area.

“So, they’re willing to punch us in the stomach publicly, but then privately, they come and they ask for all the same things they’ve always asked.”

As the Texas House debated a $247 billion two-year state budget on April 22, Oliverson offered an amendment that would have barred companies that oppose voting restrictions such as those pending in the legislature from receiving state grants. He withdrew the measure before it came to a vote, later saying he wanted to send American and other companies “a wake-up call and a warning.”

State Sen. Bryan Hughes of Tyler in East Texas, who is sponsoring one of the voting bills, said he’s invited anyone with concerns about the legislation to work with him and his staff, but that he only learned of American’s opposition when it issued its statement after Senate passage.

“I think if folks look at what’s in the bill, they’ll see it’s common-sense reforms to make the system better,” he said. “And we’re going to listen to everybody. But ultiately, if these companies don’t like the policies in Texas, there’s plenty of vacancies in California.”

Opponents of the legislation have been spotlighting a study by Texas economist Ray Perryman, president and CEO of the Perryman Group, a Waco-based economic research and analysis firm.

The report suggests that passage of the measures could tarnish the state’s image, resulting in economic losses of at least $31.4 billion through 2025, including a decline in tourism and the cancellation of showcase events. Texas could sustain a $3.8 billion hit if Dallas or Houston lose their bids to host World Cup soccer events in 2026, according to Perryman.

Democrat Mike Collier, a Houston-area accountant and former oil company executive who is gearing up for a run against Patrick in the 2022 lieutenant governor’s race, said many corporate bosses think the legislation is “terrible” and bad for business but are hesitant to speak out.

“I think it’s just a political calculation,” said Collier, who ran and lost against Patrick in 2018. “There [are] a thousand ways state government can frustrate the ambition of an investor or business leader.”

Collier said he plans to speak out against the legislation on the campaign trail. “I’m going to make sure it’s a big part of my campaign,” he said in a recent interview before speaking at a Democratic-sponsored political event at the Texas Capitol.

Hurt, whose company is a Certified B Corporation that seeks to advance the social good as well as maximize profits, said he is reaching out to thousands of followers on social media as well as to friends and colleagues in the tech and business worlds to denounce the legislation as “fundamentally undemocratic.”

“I’m very opposed to these laws being proposed right now because they’re based on fear and not based on any rational need to ‘make elections more secure,’” he said. Hurt said he’s talking with “a lot of fellow CEOs and investors, and my hope is to get people to realize that these laws, if they’re passed, will hurt businesses.”

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