Texas business leaders reluctant to take sides in heated voting rights battle
After Democrats derailed one of Texas’s most restrictive voting bills at the 11th hour – all but guaranteeing yet another partisan showdown in the near future – business leaders in the state have gone eerily silent as they plot their next steps.
“Now would be a good time for them to say something like, ‘We’re glad it was defeated, we’re hoping that this does not move forward into a special session’,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund.
“They can actually be proactive.”
With a whopping 49 restrictive voting bills, Texas led a countrywide charge to undermine voter access, even as voting rights advocates warned the proposals amounted to a new version of Jim Crow and would disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color.
The targeted attack on voting rights sparked national outrage, including among the local business community, until Democratic lawmakers walked out of the Texas House to block Senate Bill 7 – one of the most controversial, far-reaching measures.
But their last-minute maneuver has already set the stage for legislative overtime, rendering celebrations premature and forcing risk-averse corporate executives to consider whether they’ll re-enlist in the fight for round two.
“If the fight is still ongoing, I think most businesses are gonna hold their fire, for lack of a better term, until they understand whether or not this thing is gonna come back – and in what form, and at what pace,” said Nathan Ryan, co-founder and CEO of Blue Sky Partners, which is part of the Fair Elections Texas coalition of business and civic leaders.
Though timing remains unclear, Texas’ Republican governor Greg Abbott has expressed his intention to reconvene the state legislature for a special session, forcing lawmakers to address so-called “election integrity” after SB7’s failure.
The sweeping legislation threatened public officials with state jail felonies for soliciting or distributing unrequested vote-by-mail applications, banned 24-hour and drive-thru voting, and made it easier to overturn an election, among other provisions.
Already, Texas has earned the unenviable title as the hardest place to vote in the United States. Further obstacles to the polls could prove disastrous for the state’s economy, in part by making it harder to recruit workers, cutting into productive work time, alienating major events or conferences and deterring would-be tourists.
“I certainly know, when I make my travel plans, if I was thinking about going to Texas, I wouldn’t want to go,” Albright said.
By 2025, measures restricting voter access would cause Texas to shed an estimated $14.7bn in annual gross product and more than 73,000 jobs from lower earnings, employment losses and reduced household purchasing power.
An additional $16.7bn and 149,644 jobs would be lost from hits to tourism and economic development, according to economic research and analysis firm The Perryman Group.
That financial blowback would persist for decades, with a cumulative drop in gross product in the trillions by 2045. It would also slice tax revenue, costing state and local entities billions.
“Voter suppression is bad for business. Period. It’s bad for business, it’s bad for the economy,” Albright said.
During the regular session, corporate giants and local businesses alike waded into the political debate to make rare public remarks discouraging attempts to roll back voting rights.
In a letter by Fair Elections Texas, dozens of coalition members – including American Airlines, Microsoft, HP, Salesforce, Etsy and Patagonia – urged elected officials to “oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot”.
“We wanted to make a strong statement against any kind of legislation that would make voting less convenient, and cause lower turnout as a result,” Ryan said.
Separately, Dell Technologies lambasted state lawmakers for trying to silence citizens’ voices, while American Airlines “strongly opposed” Texas’s restrictive voting bills.
“At American, we believe we should break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society – not create them,” the Fort Worth-based airline said in a statement.
Texas’s Republican leaders hit back with bitter barbs that verged on intimidation, questioning companies’ understanding of the legislation and hinting at retaliation.
“They need to stay out of politics, especially when they have no clue what they’re talking about,” Abbott said.
“They might come down the street next session, have a bill they want us to pass for them. Good luck!” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick added.
Those incendiary comments likely influenced companies that ultimately decided against speaking out – and may have even chilled activism among some that had already made statements, Albright said.
But “it’s not like these businesses just have to be completely intimidated by these threats coming from these governors, right?” he added. “’Cause at the end of the day, these governors need these businesses.”
As company executives stare down the near-inevitability of a special session, Ryan believes the appetite remains to push back against voting restrictions.
Part of that boils down to the potential for financial losses if a measure such as SB7 becomes law. But it’s also about safeguarding their employees and community members.
“Companies don’t see this as Democratic party vs. Republican party. They truly do see this as small ‘d’ democratic,” Ryan said. “It’s the main civil right in our country.”