U.S. Companies Push Case for Ballot Access After Georgia Fumble

U.S. companies are leveraging their influence against the next wave of Republican-backed bills that tighten state voting rules, after a more conciliatory response failed to stop a similar law last month in Georgia.

Texas and Arizona lawmakers face blowback from top corporate citizens over measures such as a provision being considered in Austin that would allow partisan poll watchers to videotape voters. Activists and Democratic politicians are pushing businesses to oppose the measures now, instead of waiting until they become law.

The clash has Republicans, who for decades have championed tax cuts and expansive rights for corporations, criticizing companies as they try to avoid boycotts and criticism from significant portions of their customer base.

“We are not after-the-fact talking about how bad these laws are,” former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso Democrat, said in an online press event this week, calling Texas’s proposals the most concerted attack on voting rights in decades. “There is still time to act.”

Texas and Arizona are among 47 states where Republicans are pushing new restrictions after former President Donald Trump’s 10-week campaign to blame his 2020 loss on unfounded allegations of voter fraud, sowing doubt about the integrity of U.S. elections. GOP lawmakers have said the proposals are meant to protect the voting process, even though Trump’s own attorney general and election-security chief deemed the 2020 election markedly secure.

One bill approved by the Texas Senate would allow poll watchers to record voters suspected of breaking election laws -- a provision criticized by Democrats and local advocacy groups as inviting voter intimidation.

A separate House proposal would expand poll-watcher access at voting sites and prohibit public officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters. Texas lawmakers also want to ban innovations used last year to ease voting during the pandemic, including 24-hour and drive-thru voting in Harris County, home of Houston and many of the state’s Democratic voters.

In Arizona, more than a dozen proposed restrictions include measures that would remove some citizens from the permanent early voting list and add new identication requirements for mail-in ballots.

Corporate Pushback

Corporations in both states appear to have changed the approach taken in Georgia, where businesses worked behind the scenes to dilute restrictions, but publicly opposed them only after they became law. Major League Baseball also pulled the All-Star Game from the state only after Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed the law.

Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola both initially defended their role in getting the most controversial voter suppression proposals removed from the law, but were threatened with protests and boycotts, including from the influential African Methodist Episcopal church.

In Texas, Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Dell Technologies in suburban Austin have explicitly opposed the bills. In a tweet, Dell CEO Michael Dell called out efforts to criminalize helping people vote and other provisions making it harder for poll workers to toss out poll watchers for intimidating voters.

American Airlines opposed the Senate bill allowing the videotaping by poll watchers and rolling back measures meant to make it easier to vote.

“Any legislation dealing with how elections are conducted must ensure ballot integrity and security while making it easier to vote, not harder,” American said in a statement. “At American, we believe we should break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society -- not create them.”

Texas-based Southwest Airlines and AT&T have issued more general protests, without singling out any bill.

U.S. Companies Push Case for Ballot Access After Georgia Fumble

In Arizona, more than a dozen CEOs and business leaders signed an April 2 letter asking the Republican-led legislature to reject three bills that would add new requirements for early voting. Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill and representatives of Republic Services and BMO Harris were among the signatories.

The letter, originally published as a newspaper opinion piece, called the dozens of election bills proposed in Arizona this year “attempts at voter suppression cloaked as reform.” The arguments echo voting-rights groups and Democratic lawmakers who say the potential changes would make it more difficult to cast a ballot.

“These measures seek to disenfranchise voters,” the letter said. “They are ‘solutions’ in search of a problem.”

Activists across the country are determined to increase corporate pressure on lawmakers, saying the spate of restrictions moving through statehouses flies in the face of corporate efforts to support voting and minority rights during the 2020 race. They’re asking corporations not only to oppose the legislation, but withhold campaign money.

“You cannot sit on the sidelines,” said Charlie Bonner, spokesman for the activist group Move Texas. “You are either defending voters’ rights or you are supporting voter suppression.”

Businesses are navigating difficult straits, said Michael Salinger, an economics professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

“Maybe they see a public relations benefit that will enhance shareholder value,” he said in an email. “Given the unusual times that we find ourselves in, that might be right. But if their rationale is something other than promoting shareholder value, it’s a very slippery slope no matter how outrageous the legislation is.”

GOP Backlash

The companies’ Republican targets have already begun pushing back.

After Delta and Coke panned Georgia’s law, the state House voted to revoke a tax break for Delta, a move that died in the Senate. House Speaker David Ralston showily popped open a can of Coke’s archrival Pepsi during a news conference. Kemp’s allies pounded both companies in a bid to find something that could unite the Trump-fractured state GOP.

In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick devoted a lengthy news conference Tuesday to warning corporate critics to mind their own business. Governor Greg Abbott boycotted the first pitch at the Texas Rangers home opener in protest against MLB’s All-Star Game decision, accusing the Rangers’s chief operating officer in a Monday letter of playing partisan politics.

In Arizona, state Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Republican sponsor of a bill that would purge voters who skip several consecutive elections from an automatic early ballot list, called the corporate intervention insulting and the criticism unfounded. She said voters want election-security measures like the one she proposed, and companies are pandering for publicity.

“It just speaks to how desperate they are for attention,” Ugenti-Rita said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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