Experts often cite a feeling of powerlessness as a common source of anger. And Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was visibly angry at a news conference on April 6. He had lost control of the messaging on his “election integrity” bill days after it passed the Senate. A few corporate leaders in the state had come out against the legislation, widely viewed as aimed at making it more difficult for minorities to vote. They perhaps reminded Patrick of the hundreds of companies that had rallied against his 2017 anti-transgender bathroom bill and ultimately helped kill its passage in the House. With the pecan-wood blinds closed behind him so he would not be backlit for the television cameras lining his Capitol reception room, Patrick unleashed vitriol against the corporations and the news media that were describing his election overhaul legislation, Senate Bill 7, as voter suppression.
“I take it personally,” Patrick said, eyes glaring as his right index finger slashed through the air. “You are questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of the eighteen Republican senators who voted for this. When you suggest we are trying to suppress the vote, you are in essence, between the lines, calling us racists.” His voice rose as he stabbed his finger forward. “That will not stand!”
Though he was more animated than usual, the news conference wasn’t the only time this session Patrick had found himself at odds with the changing political landscape big companies must navigate today, in Texas and the rest of America. On Monday, right before the Senate passed a bill that would ban high school athletes from participating in sports designated for a gender that does not match their “biological sex,” the NCAA governing board threatened to withdraw from states that pass such laws all college championship contests—such as the 2023 Final Four basketball games set to be played in Houston. Then, on Thursday, after months of Patrick’s urging, the Senate approved a bill that could require state pension and education funds in control of $16 billion in state money to fire Wall Street money managers who are trimming their investments in fossil fuels. The debate over the Senate’s election bill was not new territory, but it had struck a nerve.
Fort Worth–based American Airlines and Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Technologies, headquartered in Round Rock, directly criticized voting restrictions pending in the Legislature. Southwest Airlines and AT&T, both based in Dallas, put out more general statements opposing any such legislation around the country. Other companies with large operations in Texas, such as Amazon, BP America, Dow Chemical, and United Airlines, have joined the hundreds of companies calling on lawmakers to “ensure that every eligible American has the freedom to easily cast their ballot.” And last weekend, more than one hundred corporate leaders from around the nation participated in a videoconference to discuss opposing voting laws such as those proposed in Texas or passed in Georgia, which recently made it illegal to provide water or food to those waiting to vote in what often are hours-long lines, especially in poorer neighborhoods.
The current corporate culture is certainly different than the one that existed even ten years ago. John T. Montford, a former state senator who became the CEO of Southwestern Bell before it was absorbed into AT&T, said corporate CEOs still need to look out for the interest of their shareholders. But, he said, “we see corporations evolving in the current generation,” because more and more of their customers, especially younger ones, are sensitive to global warming, issues involving racial and gender equity, and LGBTQ rights.
But in the days since Patrick’s news conference, no additional Texas corporations have joined in the specific criticism of Texas’s voting bills. From Silicon Valley on the West Coast to New York, corporate leaders are denouncing voter suppression legislation, but there is relatively little groundswell of opposition in Texas.
Among other provisions, Senate Bill 7 would allow voting by mail under the disability clause only for those Texans unable to leave their homes without assistance, and would require naturalized citizens to provide proof of citizenship to remain on the voter rolls, a hurdle not required for natural-born citizens. In one particularly onerous proposal, partisan election watchers would be able to photograph, film, or create an audio recording of voters if the observers “reasonably” believe they see “unlawful activity.” This empowerment of partisan and possibly zealous self-appointed fraud cops harks back to the era from the end of Reconstruction through the passage of federal voting rights laws, when Black voters and other minorities were routinely intimidated and harassed at the polls. Last week, a leaked presentation released by Common Cause Texas, a voter rights organization, featured a Harris County Republican organizer describing efforts to build an “army” of 10,000 poll watchers to come from the mostly white Republican Houston suburbs who would have “the courage” to observe Black and Hispanic inner city precincts in the 2022 election cycle. The organizer claimed without evidence that “this fraud down in here is really going to continue.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has called Patrick’s bill a return to the Jim Crow era of the late 1800s through late 1960s. Others argue that the legislation would have stark consequences for commerce and employment. Texas economist Ray Perryman has estimated that if a voter suppression bill becomes law, it would cost the state $16.7 billion and almost 150,000 jobs by 2025. Perryman’s model predicts socially conscious tourists and “knowledge workers” will not want to come to Texas, and the state will likely lose conventions and sporting events.
But although a handful of Texas companies have taken stands against the state’s election bills, the corporate response here has been far smaller than in Georgia. Timothy Werner, an expert on corporate social responsibility at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, told me a problem with enlisting more corporate opposition to the voting bills in Texas is that activists have put far less pressure on companies here than they did in Georgia, perhaps because the Peach State’s bill would have more immediately apparent onerous effects. He also said Texas voting laws and voter ID requirements are already are so restrictive that corporations could find themselves boxed in and having to also oppose them, instead of just fighting against new restrictions.
An additional concern might be retribution from Dan Patrick, who said at his press conference that CEOs are “meddling in issues” that voters “elected Republicans or Democrats to address.” After Delta Airlines opposed the Georgia’s legislation, the state’s House passed a bill to strip Delta of a tax break worth millions of dollars a year. One business lobbyist I approached for this story declined to be interviewed because “Dan Patrick is still lieutenant governor”—intimating that he felt that kind of retaliation was possible for his clients. Texas corporations, Werner noted, lack a legislative leader to come out against the bill and provide them cover for also doing so, as former Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican, did during the bathroom bill debate when he blocked its passage.
In defending his bill, Patrick demanded that corporate leaders who oppose it point out where they see voter suppression. There are many provisions in the bill, but those targeted at Harris County in particular help demonstrate the complexities of the situation corporations find themselves in and why some might be leery of jumping into a debate on the specifics of the legislation.
Last year, Harris County set up ten drive-through tents for early voting to allow anyone to cast a ballot without getting out of his or her vehicle, a measure ostensibly implemented to reduce the risk of indoor transmission of the coronavirus. S.B. 7 would outlaw doing so. Patrick defends the provision by arguing that a federal judge had ruled that the tents were not a legal polling place under state law. In the week before the election, U.S. district judge Andrew S. Hanen, appointed by President George W. Bush, threw out a Republican lawsuit that asked him to invalidate 127,000 ballots cast at the drive-through voting locations, but said that state law requires that Election Day polling places be set in buildings and he did not believe a tent qualified as a building. The county quickly shut down every drive-through location except for one in a parking garage.
Judging by the turnout drive-through voting was successful. Why not expand it to the rest of the state rather than banning it? During Senate debate on the elections bill on April 1, Senator Carol Alvarado of Houston said local election officials estimated that Black and Hispanic voters were half of those who cast ballots at drive-through locations and at polling places with extended hours. “Knowing that, who are you really targeting?” she asked. Bill sponsor Bryan Hughes, a North Texas Republican, responded by claiming that nothing in the bill was “targeting specific groups.”
A similar debate has played out over a measure in S.B. 7 that would prevent county clerks from sending out mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter. Last year, Harris’s county clerk, Chris Hollins, tried to mail 2.4 million unsolicited ballot applications, before the Texas Supreme Court ruled that he had exceeded his legal authority. While the clause in the Senate bill might seem directed at Harris County alone, it also could be an effort to stifle mail voting statewide, which trended Democratic. (In Fort Worth’s Tarrant County, for example, President Donald Trump won the early vote and the Election Day vote, but Joe Biden won the mail balloting so heavily that he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the county since 1964.)
Maybe Harris County officials exceeded their authority and the Senate wanted to make certain it did not happen again. Or maybe the Senate is pushing a restriction that prevents greater voter participation and is trying to make sure there are no repeats of unexpected 2020 losses in counties that have been reliably Republican.
A corporate leader might get lost in the debates. Sarah Bonk, the CEO of Business for America, a coalition of tech executives and investors promoting civic engagement, told me that her organization is in an educational phase for corporate leaders because businesses are reluctant to step into issues like this until they “really understand it.” She said a lot of corporate executives also don’t want to put themselves into the “crosshairs” by making half their customers angry. “It would be a lose-lose situation for some corporations.”
Perhaps trying to amplify such concerns, Patrick, in a key moment in his news conference, declared that “Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy.” I wondered whose values he was speaking of. Were they those of a son of the Hill Country who rose to be president? “Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders,” President Lyndon Johnson told Congress while urging the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Or was Patrick referring to the values of Governor Coke Stevenson, who in 1945 opposed civil rights for Black and Hispanic Texans and voiced support for a poll tax that limited voting. “We need some sort of registration system,” Stevenson said. “Otherwise, many unqualified voters would participate in every election.”
Correction: The original version of this story indicated Judge Hanen said that drive-through voting tents were not legal polling places under state law. In fact, he said that they weren’t a legal polling place for Election Day voting, specifically.