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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Next voting rights showdown comes to Texas, with GOP lawmakers threatening companies who speak out

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GOP lawmakers are pushing forward in spite of the looming potential for a public clash with major corporations that are either headquartered in the state or have a strong presence there. A chief sponsor of one of the GOP’s suppression bills, Rep. Briscoe Cain, has already threatened to impose financial penalties on any companies that take “adverse action against this state” in opposition to new voting restrictions, according to the Washington Post.

A host of Texas-based companies are taking different actions en route to mitigating the state GOP’s clear intent to curtail voting statewide. Their efforts range from joining hundreds of companies in a strong statement of support for voting rights nationwide to lobbying GOP lawmakers behind the scenes to issuing individual statements against voting restrictions.

In an April 1 statement, American Airlines 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.”

Microsoft reportedly sent an email to Republican lawmakers urging them to scale back a provision in one bill that would, for instance, make it illegal for volunteers to help a voter who might be disabled fill out their ballot. The same bill threatens penalties for county election officials who fail to correct mistakes in voter rolls. 

“We are concerned that HB 6 could criminalize honest mistakes made by volunteer poll workers,” Microsoft wrote, “which would give us pause before encouraging our employees to volunteer and serve in those roles.”

Patagonia, which is based in California but has retail stores across Texas, sent fellow Texas-based companies a “Texas Voter Suppression Analysis” that was 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,” writes the Post.

By and large companies in Texas appear to be bracing for the inevitable—a moment when they will be forced to choose between taking a public stand against whatever horrors Republicans enact or trying to fly under the radar without detection. But there’s power in numbers, particularly when Republicans are promising retribution for vocal opposition.

“The governor and lieutenant governor have been very clear about punishing corporations that speak out,” noted Sarah Labowitz, policy director at the ACLU of Texas. “The companies need safety in numbers and to speak out as a group.”

How companies will respond remains an open question, but no one will have to guess at the intent behind these GOP bills. They are transparently trained on reducing voting in a place like voter-rich Harris County, home to both Houston and a high concentration of voters of color. 

During the pandemic last year, Democratic election officials in the county sought to make as many voting options available as possible by offering drive-through voting and 24-hour polling stations. With one day of early voting to go last October, the county had already surpassed its previous turnout record of more than 1.3 million voters.

A post-election analysis of the Harris County voting found that voters of color made up more than half of those who utilized the early voting options of drive-through voting and the 24-hour poll access. Naturally, two of the chief GOP suppression bills specifically take aim at drive-up voting and after-hours voting. At same time, Harris County Republicans are working to enlist some 10,000 poll watchers for the 2022 midterms. The statewide legislation also seeks to empower those poll watchers with new powers to intimidate voters and also record any assistance given to voters with disabilities—in other words, Republicans are trying to legalize and encourage some very sick behavior among partisan poll watchers. 

“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, the Harris County clerk during last year’s election.


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