Pressure builds over restrictive voting bills in Texas

Businesses face political pressure to push back against the legislation.

April 7, 2021, 5:04 AM

Amid the fallout over Georgia's new sweeping elections law, Texas Democrats and voting rights activists are strategizing how to get some of the state's biggest employers to apply political pressure on lawmakers weighing restrictive voting bills in the Lone Star State.

Over the course of nearly a week, a handful of corporate giants including American Airlines, Dell, Microsoft and AT&T issued statements voicing varying degrees of concern about the bills put forth by Republicans in both chambers of the Texas legislature. Many of the corporate responses came on the heels of the state Senate's passage of SB7, leaving all eyes on the ongoing movements of HB6, the state House version of the bill.

Voting rights activists note that taken together the two pieces of legislation would impose a number of limitations on ballot access, including prohibiting election officials from sending out ballot applications to anyone who did not individually request one and allowing poll watchers greater access within polling places.

Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and others participate in a virtual press conference organized by MOVE Texas and posted to Facebook, on April 6, 2021.
MOVE Texas/Facebook

"This is a Republican Party power grab. The Republican Party in Texas is trying to bring back Jim Crow-style voter suppression to this state. They're trying to achieve in Texas what they tried to achieve in Georgia, and companies have a choice to make," former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said during a virtual press conference this week.

Castro said companies based in Texas, along with others who do business there, are faced with a choice "to either stand on the side of making sure people have the right to vote and are able to exercise that right, or they can stand on the side of a party that is only concerned with maintaining its power and wants to disenfranchise especially Black and brown voters to do that."

Castro's former presidential primary campaign rival and former congressman Beto O'Rourke expressed his feelings encouraged by the initial responses from corporations, but indicated he hopes to see more business giants take action beyond their statements.

O'Rourke specifically called on customers of influential Texas employers like AT&T, Frito-Lay, Toyota, Pepsi and Southwest Airlines to exert their influence and ask those brands to take a more robust stand in support of voter rights. The former congressman also indicated the moment is ripe for advocacy because the House bill in question has not yet come up for a vote.

A voter, right, shows her identification to a Harris County election clerk before voting, in Houston, July 14, 2020.
David J. Phillip/AP, FILE

"This is not done yet -- we're not, after the fact, talking about how bad these laws are because they've been signed into law, we're talking about this right now because there's still time to act," O'Rourke added, in what appeared to be a reference to the corporate backlash unfolding in Georgia after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a sweeping elections bill into law in late March.

When pressed by ABC News about whether the legislation could actually be prevented from becoming law given the state's Republican-controlled legislature, Castro reiterated the need for Texans and businesses to apply pressure on lawmakers ahead of the House bill being up for a full vote. The bill could be up for a committee vote as early as this week before advancing to the floor.

"I'm confident that if all of us as Texans step up and make those phone calls to our elected officials and put pressure on them, and if these companies step up and take a stand and withdraw their support to legislators that voted for (the Senate bill) and (the House bill), then we can stop this," Castro said.

Several of voter rights advocates who joined the two high-profile Democrats said the legislation would specifically impose challenges on communities of color and their ballot access. Some called out corporations for failing to recognize the dissonance between having previously voiced public support for Black Lives Matter while sidestepping the current conversation over restrictions on voting access that would primarily burden urban and diverse communities.

"If you believe that your vote is your voice, then we want you to have the moral courage to stand up with us. Use your voice -- not only are we asking for you to make statements but we need you to move beyond talking the talk, to walking in the walk," said the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott talks during a press conference in Weslaco, Texas, April 1, 2021.
Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP, FILE

The state's top Republican, Gov. Greg Abbott, voiced concerns over corporations getting involved in Texas politics during an interview on Fox News. Abbott ripped into the backlash against Georgia's elections law and said he declined to throw the first pitch at the Texas Rangers' opening game on Monday due to the MLB's recent decision to move the All-Star game from Atlanta in protest of the legislation.

"It is ridiculous that we have some of these organizations that know nothing whatsoever about what the law provides but are getting and injecting themselves into politics into ways that are flat out wrong and I refuse to associate with an organization that is taking political positions," Abbott said, adding that he did not want the MLB involved in Texas politics.

By not showing up at the opening game, the governor said he is "sending a message to these Texas-based companies that have made the very same mistake with regard to Texas laws."

Abbott's second in command, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, piled on at a fiery press conference, telling reporters that he took the criticisms from American Airlines of the proposed legislation "personally."

"When you suggest that we're trying to suppress the vote you're in essence, between the lines, calling us racist and that will not stand," Patrick said. "That will not stand."

Like Abbott, he lauded his state's businesses environment, but issued a warning about potential future repercussions for corporations that continue to push back against the voting bills.

"Don't, on one hand, say 'Thank you, Texas' while on the other hand slap us in the face," Patrick said. "We're not going to put up with it anymore."