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Businesses finally offer some real resistance to voter suppression

About time.

With less than a month left in the legislative session — and Texas Republicans split on which package of proposals might cross the finish line — Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Unilever, Patagonia and two dozen other companies are urging state lawmakers not to pass new restrictions on voting.

In the biggest pushback so far by business against the GOP’s legislative bid to ratchet up the state’s already restrictive voting rules, national companies joined in a statement voicing their opposition Tuesday with local businesses and several local chambers of commerce representing LGBTQ, Hispanic and Black members of the business community.

“We stand together, as a nonpartisan coalition, calling on all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot,” the businesses wrote in their letter. “We urge business and civic leaders to join us as we call upon lawmakers to uphold our ever elusive core democratic principle: equality. By supporting a stronger trustworthy democracy, we will elevate our economy.”

The statement does not address specific legislation, but comes as Texas Republicans press forward with bills in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud and warnings from voting rights advocates and lawyers that many of them would be disproportionately harmful to voters of color.

Following the recent passage of new restrictions in Georgia, major corporations began responding to criticism about staying out of that fight by largely coalescing around joint statements that generally stated their opposition to election changes that make it harder to vote.

[…]

As the fight over new restrictions moved from Georgia to Texas, the state’s Republican leadership moved to quickly condemn businesses scrutinizing the proposals under consideration during the 2021 legislative session.

Gov. Greg Abbott — who declared “election integrity” a legislative priority — backed out of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opening game and said he would boycott any other Major League Baseball events over its decision to pull the All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there. Calling it “absolutely ridiculous” for the MLB to take a position on the Georgia law, Abbott in a Fox News television interview indicated he was sending a message to Texas-based companies and others eyeing a move to the state — and the financial incentives that are often used to lure them.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick angrily targeted American Airlines during a press conference in which he described those raising concerns of voter suppression a “nest of liars.”

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said in a separate statement responding to American Airlines’ opposition to SB 7.

In the Texas House, the possible retribution for companies that have come out against the bills has been mostly symbolic so far. Republicans sought to inject the dispute into the chamber’s consideration of the state’s massive budget bill last month, offering amendments to withhold state funds from businesses that publicly opposed legislation “related to election integrity.” Those proposals were ultimately kept off the budget.

Those threats — coupled with Republican demands for corporations to stay out of policy disputes outside of their business realm — did not deter the companies that signed onto the letter. Patagonia has even been sharing its own analysis of “voter suppression legislation,” which includes SB 7, HB 6 and several other bills, with other companies considering opposing proposed restrictions.

“Companies need to do more than solely focus on profit … and empowering their communities can be really good for business and thats something we’re seeing that’s a good trend,” said Corley Kenna, a spokesperson for Patagonia. “I hope more companies speak out on these issues, mostly because I think its important to have companies step up where government seems to be falling short.”

I certainly approve of that. See here for the previous update, here for a copy of the letter, and here for the Fair Elections Texas website, which is pretty bare-bones for now. I very much appreciate their stance, and I hope that they get a lot of reinforcements soon.

Case in point

A group of 175 business leaders sent a letter to House Speaker Dade Phelan on Tuesday morning opposing several key provisions of the voting bills being debated in the Texas Legislature, which they said would add unacceptable barriers for Houston residents to cast a ballot.

They included 10 members of the Greater Houston Partnership board, whose efforts to push the region’s largest chamber of commerce to condemn the bills were rebuffed by the group’s president. With the partnership silent on legislation Harris County leaders say will make voting more difficult for everyone and discriminate against people of color, the members said they could not stomach sitting on the sidelines.

“When you have an organization that is supposed to reflect the diversity and inclusion, and has taken steps on its website to discuss racial equality but does not have the spine to bring forth to a vote an issue that is as important as this, we felt we had no choice but to bring it in a public forum,” said Gerald Smith, who also sits on the partnership’s executive committee.

The letter takes Phelan up on the speaker’s invitation last month for business leaders to flag provisions in the bills, including House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, that could add obstacles to voting.

It raises alarm over provisions that would move polling sites away from Houston’s urban core, limit voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, remove restrictions on poll watchers, streamline voter roll purges and add a host of criminal penalties for poll workers and local election officials found in violation of the Texas Election Code.

“These provisions, among others, will inevitably damage our competitiveness in attracting businesses and workers to Houston,” the letter states. “Especially as we aim to attract major conferences and sporting events, including the FIFA World Cup, voter suppression is a stain on our reputation that could cost our region millions of dollars.”

[…]

The influential Greater Houston Partnership, founded in 1840, seeks to speak for the 12-county region’s business community. It regularly lobbies the Legislature on policy issues, and in the past has bucked state leaders on controversial issues, including the group’s opposition to the so-called bathroom bill in 2017 that helped torpedo a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The partnership also made a commitment last summer to opposing racial injustice, issuing a statement recognizing its members “have an opportunity as Houstonians to lead the way in reforming broken systems, building up communities, offering support and removing barriers.”

For some GHP members, the organization’s inaction on SB 7 and HB 6 calls into question how serious that commitment was. A proposal that would require a roughly equal number of polling sites per state House district, the Harris County election administrator estimates, would result in fewer sites in urban areas with higher Black and Latino populations and more in suburban communities with a higher share of white voters.

As the bills began to take shape in Austin, several board members wished to revise the partnership’s April 1 broad statement on voting rights, which called on the Legislature to balance election security with ensuring equal ballot access.

GHP President Bob Harvey allotted 15 minutes to the topic at the group’s April 21 regular meeting, though the discussion ran much longer, said board member Gerald Smith. He said Harvey pledged to schedule a special board meeting to resolve the issue.

See here for some background on that, and Zach Despart’s Twitter thread for a copy of the letter. These GHP members think the organization is dragging its feet, which at this point seems self-evident. In the end, I still think that at least one of SB7 or HB6 passes, or some combination of them. These are Greg Abbott “emergency” bills, and the seething hordes of the Republican primary electorate will not tolerate anything they perceive to be failure. (Which is one of the reasons we’re in this spot to begin with.) At the very least, time is running out to get on the right side of this issue while it still matters. Do the right thing here, GHP. NBC News and the Texas Signal have more.

UPDATE: I drafted this on Tuesday, didn’t run it on Wednesday, then Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo announced they would no longer hold events at the GHP in response to that organization’s pusillanimous response. I’ll have a separate post on that tomorrow. Too much news, y’all.

MLB pulls 2021 All Star Game out of Georgia

Well, well, well.

Major League Baseball on Friday pulled this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of Georgia’s new restrictive voting law.

The “Midsummer Classic” was set for July 13 at Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, in addition to other activities connected to the game, such as the annual MLB Draft.

“I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft,” Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. said in a statement. “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.”

[…]

While Truist Park is in Cobb County, just outside of Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms warned her constituents that MLB’s move will likely be the first “of many dominoes to fall, until the unnecessary barriers put in place to restrict access to the ballot box are removed.”

“Just as elections have consequences, so do the actions of those who are elected,” she said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from neighboring Florida, blasted MLB for caving to public pressure.

“Why are we still listening to these woke corporate hypocrites on taxes regulations & anti-trust?” Rubio tweeted.

This week, President Joe Biden said he would strongly support moving the All-Star Game out of Georgia to protest the new law.

MLB’s action follows strong statements from the Georgia-based companies Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines blasting the state’s law.

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House of Representatives minority leader, said in a statement Friday that she’s “disappointed” that MLB officials took the All-Star Game from Atlanta but is “proud of their stance on voting rights.”

Georgia Republicans “traded economic opportunity for suppression,” said Abrams, who is credited with voter-drive efforts that delivered the Peach State to Biden and two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

MLB has not determined a new All Star Game location yet, but as the story notes the 2020 game was supposed to be in LA but was canceled due to COVID-19. That’s an obvious solution if they want it. You can see a copy of the full MLB statement here. They’re basically following in the footsteps of the NBA, which you may recall pulled their 2017 All Star Game out of Charlotte following the passage of the extremely anti-trans HB2 in North Carolina; that law was later amended, though not repealed. Stacey Abrams has said elsewhere that she does not advocate for boycotts of Georgia in response to their voter suppression bill because the effects of such boycotts tend to hit lower income folks and people of color harder, but it’s still meaningful to see a response.

Meanwhile, in Texas.

Some of the state’s most influential companies are criticizing a package of proposed changes to Texas elections that civil rights groups liken to Jim Crow laws and that will suppress voting.

The bill approved by the Texas Senate on Thursday would limit early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and ban local election officials from sending vote-by-mail applications to voters unless specifically requested. A bill that combines the Senate and House versions is expected to reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk within weeks.

Among the Texas-based companies decrying the bill are American Airlines, computer-maker Dell and Waste Management.

The Houston-based waste disposal company said in a statement that it supports elections that are open to all voters.

“Integrity and equal access for all are critical to a healthy voting system and our democracy,” spokeswoman Janette Micelli said.

The Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston region’s chamber of commerce, said in an email that it believes that the state’s voting process should instill confidence in the process and be “open and readily accessible by all.”

“We encourage our elected leaders, on both sides of the political aisle, to balance these two ideals, strengthening all Texans’ right to vote in free and fair elections,” the GHP said.

AA and Dell we knew about, while Waste Management is new to the party – welcome, y’all. As for the GHP, that statement is pretty damn limp, and SB7 author Bryan Hughes is quoted in the story claiming this is exactly what his trash bill is meant to do. Don’t be mealy-mouthed, GHP. Take an actual stand or sit down and be quiet. Daily Kos, which notes that Southwest Airlines and AT&T have “offered vaguer statements in support of voting rights” without mentioning SB7, has more.

First major vote suppression bill passes

Nothing’s going to stop them.

Senate Republicans on Thursday cleared the way for new, sweeping restrictions to voting in Texas that take particular aim at forbidding local efforts meant to widen access.

In an overnight vote after more than seven hours of debate, the Texas Senate signed off on Senate Bill 7, which would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify.

The legislation is at the forefront of Texas Republicans’ crusade to further restrict voting in the state following last year’s election. Though Republicans remain in full control of state government, Texas saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020, with Democrats continuing to drive up their vote counts in the state’s urban centers and diversifying suburban communities.

Like other proposals under consideration at the Texas Capitol, many of the restrictions in SB 7 would target initiatives championed in those areas to make it easier for more voters to participate in elections.

The bill — deemed a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — now heads to the House for consideration after moving rapidly through the Senate. Just two weeks after it was filed, a Senate committee advanced it Friday. That approval followed more than five hours of public testimony, largely in opposition over concerns it would be detrimental to voters who already struggle to vote under the state’s strict rules for elections.

While presenting the bill to the Senate, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes said the legislation “standardizes and clarifies” voting rules so that “every Texan has a fair and equal opportunity to vote, regardless of where they live in the state.”

“Overall, this bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open,” Hughes said.

In Texas and nationally, the Republican campaign to change voting rules in the name of “election integrity” has been largely built on concerns over widespread voter fraud for which there is little to no evidence. More recently, Texas Republican lawmakers have attempted to reframe their legislative proposals by offering that even one instance of fraud undermines the voice of a legitimate voter.

[…]

While questioning Hughes, Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston referenced an analysis by Harris County’s election office that estimated that Black and Hispanic voters cast more than half of the votes counted at both drive-thru sites and during extended hours.

“Knowing that, who are you really targeting?” Alvarado asked.

“There’s nothing in this bill that has to do with targeting specific groups. The rules apply across the board,” Hughes replied.

See here for the previous update. Note the very careful language Hughes used in his response to Sen. Alvarado. The Republican defense to the eventual lawsuits is that these laws aren’t targeting voters of color in any way. They’re just plain old value-neutral applies-to-everyone restrictions, the kind that (Republican) Supreme Court Justices approve of, and if they happen to have a disparate impact on some voters of color, well, that’s just the price you have to pay to make Republicans feel more secure about their future electoral prospects ensure the integrity of the vote.

It’s the poll watchers provision that is easily the worst of this bill.

Although videotaping in polling locations in Texas is prohibited, under a bill that passed the Texas Senate just after 2 a.m. on Thursday, partisan poll watchers would be allowed to videotape any person voting that they suspect may be doing something unlawful. But poll workers and voters would be barred from recording the poll watchers.

History has shown this is likely going to lead to more Black and Hispanic people being recorded by white poll watchers who believe they are witnessing something suspicious, advocates warn.

“It’s designed to go after minority voters,” said Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP.

Not so, says State Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican from Mineola. He said the recordings by poll watchers will give officials a way to resolve disputes at polling locations especially related to potential voter fraud.

“They are the eyes and ears of the public, and if a dispute does arise about what happened, what was said, what was done, the more evidence we can have the better,” Hughes said of the provision within his Senate Bill 7, which includes a number of measures to restrict voting access in the name of preventing fraud.

But to Black and Hispanic leaders, the legislation is a replay of the voter intimidation from the 1960s and 1970s. After the voting rights acts of the 1960s were passed, Domingo Garcia, the national president of LULAC, said law enforcement in some counties in Texas would take pictures of Hispanics and Black voters at polling places and then try to deliver those pictures to their white employers or others in the community to get them in trouble.

“It was a form of voter intimidation then, and that’s what this would be now,” Garcia said.

What makes SB 7 even more dangerous is who it is empowers to make recordings, Bledsoe said.

Poll watchers are volunteers chosen by candidates and parties to observe the election process. They do not undergo background checks and are not subject to any training requirements.

As such, they could quickly become a sort of vigilante force, Bledsoe said. He said many times Republican poll watchers are sent from other parts of the community into Black and Hispanic precincts and may not even be familiar with the neighborhoods where they would be allowed to record people trying to vote.

“This is intimidating as all get out,” he said.

Shortly after midnight Thursday in a marathon hearing, Hughes amended the bill to bar poll watchers from posting the videos on social media or sharing them with others except for the Texas Secretary of State.

If you can’t see the potential for abuse here, I don’t know what to tell you. Others have pointed out that voters who have been the victim of domestic violence would certainly feel intimidated by having a stranger video them. This is giving unvetted people with a motive to cause trouble a lot of power and no accountability. That’s a recipe for disaster.

There’s not a lot more to say about this that I haven’t already said, so let me reiterate a few things while I can. There’s been more corporate pushback on the Georgia law, but we’re still very short on attention for what’s happening in Texas, not to mention the rest of the country. At this point, merely condemning the suppressionist bills is insufficient. If you actually believe in the importance of voting, then put your money where your mouth is and take action to vote out the officials who are trying to take it away from so many Americans. Senator Hughes is right about one thing – this anti-voting push from him and his fellow Republicans did in fact begin before the 2020 election. All the more reason why the elected officials doing the pushing do not deserve to have the power and responsibility they have been given.

Sen. Borris Miles gave a speech on the floor thanking Sen. Hughes for “waking the beast”, and I do think bills like this will have a galvanizing effect for Democrats and Democratic leaners. As I’ve said before, I think the practical effect of this law will be more negative to the Republican rank and file than perhaps they expect. Democrats took advantage of voting by mail in 2020, but that’s not their usual way of voting, and the restrictions that SB7 imposes, as Campos notes, is going to hurt those who are most used to voting by mail, who are generally Republicans. I believe as much as ever that Democrats should campaign in 2022 on a promise to make it easier and more convenient to vote. This law, to whatever extent it is allowed to be enacted, will hurt, but how much and in what ways remains to be seen. That’s the risk of reacting so forcefully to an anomalous event – it’s easy to go overboard and do things you didn’t really intend to do. We’ll see how it plays out. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: This is a good start.

American Airlines Statement on Texas Voting Legislation

Earlier this morning, the Texas State Senate passed legislation with provisions that limit voting access. To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it. 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.

Voting is the hallmark of our democracy, and is the foundation of our great country. We value the democratic process and believe every eligible American should be allowed to exercise their right to vote, no matter which political party or candidate they support.

We acknowledge how difficult this is for many who have fought to secure and exercise their constitutional right to vote. Any legislation dealing with how elections are conducted must ensure ballot integrity and security while making it easier to vote, not harder. At American, we believe we should break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society – not create them.

Via Patrick Svitek, who also posted the super pissy response it drew from one of Abbott’s mouthpieces and from Dan Patrick. More action is needed, but we have to start somewhere.

UPDATE: Also good:

Via the Trib. Keep ’em coming, but don’t forget the need for action.

News flash: Businesses still hate bathroom bills

IBM hates them.

As state lawmakers return to Austin for legislative overtime, tech giant IBM is stepping up its fight to defeat legislation it says would discriminate against children and harm its Texas recruiting efforts.

In an internal email sent Monday to thousands of employees around the world, IBM’s human resources chief outlined the New York-based company’s opposition to what the letter described as discriminatory proposals to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans. IBM sent the letter to employees the same day it dispatched nearly 20 top executives to the Lone Star State to lobby lawmakers at the state Capitol. A day earlier, it took out full-page ads in major Texas newspapers underlining its opposition to legislation that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a cadre of far-right lawmakers have deemed a top priority.

“Why Texas? And why now? On July 18th, the Texas legislature will start a thirty-day special session, where it is likely some will try to advance a discriminatory ‘bathroom bill’ similar to the one that passed in North Carolina last year,” wrote Diane Gherson, IBM’s senior vice president for human resources. “It is our goal to convince Texas elected officials to abandon these efforts.”

[…]

The email IBM sent to employees on Monday echoed concerns businesses voiced in their letter to Abbott earlier this year, saying the company — which has more than 10,000 employees in Texas — is focused on defeating the bathroom proposals because they’re detrimental to inclusive business practices and fly in the face of “deep-rooted” values against discrimination targeting LGBT people.

“A bathroom bill like the one in Texas sends a message that it is okay to discriminate against someone just for being who they are,” Gherson, the company’s HR chief, wrote.

As do other companies.

CEOs from 14 leading employers in the Dallas area, including AT&T, American Airlines and Texas Instruments, are taking a public stand against a “bathroom bill” that would discriminate against transgender people in Texas.

On Monday morning, they delivered a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. A bathroom bill, the letter says, “would seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investment and jobs.”

“Our companies are competing every day to bring the best and brightest talent to Dallas,” the letter says. “To that end, we strongly support diversity and inclusion. This legislation threatens our ability to attract and retain the best talent in Texas, as well as the greatest sporting and cultural attractions in the world.”

The letter is signed by Randall Stephenson of AT&T, Doug Parker of American Airlines, Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines, Kim Cocklin of Atmos Energy, Matthew Rose of BNSF Railway, Mark Rohr of Celanese, Harlan Crow of Crow Holdings, Sean Donohue of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Emmitt Smith of EJ Smith Enterprises, Fred Perpall of the Beck Group, David Seaton of Fluor, Thomas Falk of Kimberly-Clark, Trevor Fetter of Tenet Healthcare and Richard Templeton of Texas Instruments.

As the story notes, these efforts join other efforts by businesses to stop this thing. Such efforts have been met with an indifference bordering on hostility and contempt by Abbott and especially Patrick. I appreciate what all these companies and groups like TAB and the various chambers of commerce and visitors’ bureaus have done so far, which has been a tremendous help in keeping this awful legislation from reaching Abbott’s desk. But the big question remains what they will do after the special session gavels out, whatever the outcome of these efforts. I’ve had this question for a long time now. Between potty politics and the anti-immigration fervor of SB4, a lot of damage has already been done to our state’s reputation, and the men in charge keep wanting to do more. They’re not going to go away if they lose this session – they have the zealous will and a crap-ton of money powering them. Will these business interests, who have been getting so badly served by politicians they have generally supported, or at least tacitly accepted, in the past, put their money where their press conferences are and actively oppose Abbott and Patrick and their legislative enablers? Or will they bend over and take another lash from the paddle? One wonders at this point what they think they have to lose. The Chron has more.

RIP, Nerd Bird

The economic slowdown claims another victim.

When the Statesman’s business desk got a tip from a reader that American Airlines was grounding the Nerd Bird, I was more than a little dubious.

The twice-a-day nonstop flight between Austin and San Jose, Calif., is more than just a convenient way for engineers, executives, salespeople and marketers to get to Silicon Valley. It’s something of an Austin high-tech institution, and its demise seemed unfathomable.

Since the first Nerd Bird took off in October 1992, the 3½-hour trip had become a place for techies to swap résumés and rumors, make new contacts, rehearse sales pitches and, on occasion, surreptitiously read what’s on a competitor’s laptop screen.

“The beauty of the Nerd Bird is, you get on, and you never know who you’re going to see, who you’ll meet, what you’ll learn,” says Steve Vandegrift, a longtime Austin software entrepreneur and co-founder of Internet startup PipelineSuccess.com who has taken the flight numerous times over the years. “It’s like a full Rolodex of connections every flight.”

But now the ride is coming to an end. American confirmed it is discontinuing the flight, citing the recession and a slowdown in business travel. The Nerd Bird will stop flying Aug. 25.

Spokesman Tim Smith said the route might return one day, “but we’re not in a position to promise it.”

Man, I don’t even live in Austin and that bums me out. I’ve got a lot of friends who have taken that flight a bunch of times. For their sake, at least, I hope this does come back some day.