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Business Coalitions to Speak Out Against Voting Restrictions in Texas

New York Times - Tue May 4 09:00

Companies including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Unilever are set to call for expanded voting access in the state after weeks of silence from national businesses on Republicans’ voting bills there.

Protesters at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, demonstrated against Republicans’ proposed bills to restrict voting in the state.
Credit...Eric Gay/Associated Press

Two broad coalitions of companies and executives plan to release letters on Tuesday calling for expanded voting access in Texas, wading into the contentious debate over Republican legislators’ proposed new restrictions on balloting after weeks of relative silence from the business community in the state.

One letter comes from a group of large corporations, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Unilever, Salesforce, Patagonia and Sodexo, as well as local companies and chambers of commerce, and represents the first major coordinated effort among businesses in Texas to take action against the voting proposals.

The letter, under the banner of a new group called Fair Elections Texas, stops short of criticizing the two voting bills that are now advancing through the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature, but opposes “any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot.”

A separate letter, also expected to be released on Tuesday and signed by more than 100 Houston executives, goes further. It directly criticizes the proposed legislation and equates the efforts with “voter suppression.”

That letter was organized by a breakaway faction of the Greater Houston Partnership, the equivalent of a citywide chamber of commerce in the country’s fourth-largest city, and came after a month of intense debate within the organization over how to respond to the voting proposals.

Together, the letters signify a sudden shift in how the business community approaches the voting bills in Texas. Until now, American Airlines and Dell Technologies were the only major corporations to publicly speak out about the Texas legislation, and after doing so they quickly found themselves threatened by Republicans in Austin, the state capital. Neither American Airlines nor Dell signed the new letter from Fair Elections Texas.

But with a varied coalition that numbers well into the dozens, companies are hoping a collective voice willing to apply pressure at the state level could break through and sway the thinking of some Republican legislators who may be wavering on the bills.

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Ron Kirk, a Democratic former mayor of Dallas, in 2016. He helped organize one of the letters supporting voting rights in Texas.
Credit...Pool Photo by Ashley Landis

“It is a test of the commitment of the business community that spoke out so forcefully in the aftermath of the insurrection at our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6,” Ron Kirk, a Democratic former mayor of Dallas and United States trade representative who helped organize the Fair Elections Texas effort, said in an interview.

Corporations across the country find themselves at the center of a swirling partisan debate over voting rights. With Republicans in almost every state advancing legislation that would make it harder for some people to vote, companies are under pressure from both sides. Democratic activists, along with many mainstream business leaders, are calling on corporations to oppose the new laws. At the same time, a growing chorus of senior Republicans is telling corporate America to keep quiet.

On Thursday, Republicans in Florida passed a new bill that would limit voting by mail, curtail the use of drop boxes and prohibit actions to help people waiting in line to vote, among other restrictions. Its passage came just weeks after more than 400 corporations issued a national statement supporting expanded access to voting and implicitly criticizing the restrictive efforts. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is expected to sign the state’s bill.

In the past, opposition from big business has helped squash restrictive legislation at the state level, and many companies have spoken out on the voting issue.

But as Republicans step up their attacks on “woke corporate hypocrites,” as Senator Marco Rubio put it, that criticize the party’s agenda, many other companies are proceeding cautiously. After companies including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola publicly opposed the voting law that Georgia Republicans passed in March, Mr. Rubio, Republican of Florida, excoriated them in a video on Twitter, and former President Donald J. Trump called for a boycott.

Soon after, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, told chief executives to “stay out of politics.” And in recent days, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, and Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, have criticized corporations, accusing them of supporting the Democratic agenda.

The letter from Fair Elections Texas has been in the works for weeks, as a group of political operatives, Mr. Kirk and coalition members, including Patagonia, tried to persuade companies to sign on. National organizations like the Civic Alliance and the Leadership Now Project also helped corral companies.

“We stand together, as a nonpartisan coalition, calling on all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot,” the letter reads. “We urge business and civic leaders to join us as we call upon lawmakers to uphold our ever elusive core democratic principle: equality.”

Corley Kenna, a spokeswoman for Patagonia, said she had heard countless stories about lawmakers in Texas who let companies know that if they spoke up on voting rights, favors that once came regularly could dissipate. But the threats ultimately did not move the signatories of the letter.

“I think the history books will take note on who shows up to support voting rights right now, and who doesn’t, and I think companies that do will be rewarded, ultimately,” Ms. Kenna said. The company operates two stores in Texas and has dozens of other partners, wholesalers and retail partners across the state.

The letter signed by members of the Greater Houston Partnership came after many members of the group, including several prominent Black executives, grew frustrated with the organization’s tepid response to the voting issue.

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Credit...Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

Last month, the partnership issued a short statement expressing its support for voting rights. But during Zoom meetings in recent weeks, several members pressed the group’s leadership to go further and take a stand against the proposed legislation.

“The partnership took a neutral stance,” said Gerald B. Smith, the chairman of Smith Graham, an investment firm. “Silence in this case is complicity.”

Over the past few days, several members of the partnership resolved to write a letter of their own, which would not be signed by the organization itself.

“Voter suppression is raising barriers to people’s most fundamental rights to participate in our democracy,” reads a draft of the letter, which is addressed to Dade Phelan, the Republican speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. “There has been significant discussion of the evidence of voter suppression in the two omnibus voting rights bills, H.B. 6 and S.B. 7, in addition to dozens of smaller bills with similar aims.”

Heidi Cruz, the wife of Mr. Cruz, is a senior member of the Greater Houston Partnership; it is not known if she took a position on making a statement.

The two letters recall a similar effort of corporate activism in 2017, when large businesses banded together to send a letter denouncing a so-called bathroom bill in Texas targeting transgender people. The Legislature, prodded by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, had drafted a bill that would require transgender people to use public bathrooms or similar facilities based on the sex on their birth certificate, as opposed to their gender identity.

Similar to the new letter from Fair Elections Texas, the companies’ 2017 letter did not take a direct stand against the anti-transgender bill, simply stating that they supported diversity, equity and inclusion. They argued that the bill “would seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investment and jobs.”

Republicans in the Legislature eventually backed away from the bill amid the public backlash. The letter, which was signed by major corporations like American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Texas Instruments and AT&T, was seen as a major moment for corporate activism in Texas, as well as one of the deciding factors that led to the bill’s eventual demise.

Though major companies like HP joined the Fair Elections Texas letter, there were some notable absences of companies based in Texas that signed the 2017 letter: Southwest Airlines and AT&T.

For the local, smaller companies that joined the Fair Elections Texas effort, supporting voting rights was important both for protecting civil rights and liberties and for protecting their ability to grow.

“We were created in Texas, we started in Texas, I’m a Texan, we want to grow here,” said David Najjab, the director of institutional partnerships at Gearbox, a video game company with headquarters in Frisco, Texas. “But if need be, we might have to look other places for expansion. Not that we’d leave — we’re still here — but it does make it difficult for recruitment.”

The company has more than 400 employees, Mr. Najjab said, and, in the booming world of video game software, it is constantly growing. Onerous restrictions on voting in Texas could harm that expansion, he said.

“It’s not a threat,” Mr. Najjab said. “It’s just, we need the best and the brightest from competition with the world. Video games are made worldwide. We want the best and the brightest. And if they don’t feel safe and their families don’t feel safe, it’ll be tough to get them here.”