ECONOMY

American Airlines, Unilever, Others Oppose Texas Voting Access Laws

AUSTIN, Texas—A group of major companies and business organizations came out Tuesday against a Texas voting bill, after debating how aggressively they should be involved in state legislation.

Nearly 50 companies, including

Microsoft Corp.

,

Unilever

PLC and

American Airlines Group Inc.,

signed a letter opposing “any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot” in Texas, days ahead of an expected vote in the state legislature on a voting bill.

As state legislatures consider new voting access bills, companies in Texas and elsewhere have grappled with how much to weigh in, amid pressure from employees and civil-rights organizations and pushback from Republicans lawmakers. After Georgia legislators added vote-by-mail identification requirements and limited drop boxes, companies including

Delta Air Lines Inc.

and Coca-Cola Co. lodged public opposition.

The business community in Texas has been divided in recent weeks over how strongly to come out against the imminent legislation. Signatories of Tuesday’s letter preferred not to name any specific bills because there are several and because they wanted to avoid direct lobbying, said people familiar with the matter. A fight over how strongly to oppose the bills, meanwhile, broke out among members of the Greater Houston Partnership, the state’s major business association, according to internal documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The group splintered, and some of its members joined more than 175 business executives, lawyers and other prominent Houstonians in signing a letter Tuesday opposing the bills.

The statement, signed by leaders of major companies, regional businesses and chambers of commerce, doesn’t address specifics of the several voting bills that are advancing in the Texas Legislature. People involved in drafting the statement said it was intended to oppose them.

The companies signed under the banner of a new group called Fair Elections Texas. Other signatories include

Levi Strauss

& Co.,

Etsy Inc.,

Patagonia Inc. and Warby Parker.

Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, said rhetoric among Republican lawmakers in Washington has made companies more cautious about making statements on voting rights.



Photo:

mandel ngan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Many of the signatories aren’t based in Texas. Republican lawmakers in Texas have publicly criticized executives and companies that have spoken out against the bills.

Bills passed by the Texas Senate in recent weeks would limit early voting hours, place more restrictions on people who provide assistance with voting and allow partisan poll watchers to record video or take photos of people voting, among other measures.

Proponents of the measures say they will make elections more secure. Opponents say they will reduce voting access. The state House is expected to vote on a bill that could include many of the provisions soon.

American Airlines,

based in Texas, issued a statement opposing one of the voting bills after it passed the state Senate.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

held a news conference calling the airline and other critics a “nest of liars” and accusing its leaders of not having read the bill. An airline spokeswoman said the company had read the bill.


‘Trust in government has fallen, and people are expecting CEOs to help lead and speak.’


— Brett Hurt, CEO of data.world

Last month, lawmakers proposed amendments to the Texas state budget that would have withheld grants and other funding from any companies that publicly opposed legislation “related to election integrity.” The amendments were withdrawn, but were widely seen as a warning against companies thinking of weighing in on the bills.

Ron Kirk,

a former mayor of Dallas, Texas secretary of state and U.S. trade representative who has been working with the companies on the Fair Elections Texas statement, said the response from Mr. Patrick and rhetoric among Republican lawmakers in Washington made the companies more cautious about what they said.

“They have issued passive statements that they support the right to vote and support voting, but they’ve held off on specifics,” Mr. Kirk, a Democrat, said. “I would welcome them speaking with a more unequivocal voice: That these bills are not only unnecessary, but they are dangerous.”

Some board members of the Greater Houston Partnership advocated in late April for the group to issue a statement in response to the legislation, according to an internal letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The proposed 81-word statement noted that legislation in Texas “should expand, instead of limit, options for civic participation,” and added that some provisions of these bills “are contrary to these objectives and should be eliminated or modified.”

In making a case for the statement, the members noted that certain provisions of the pending voter bills “are highly objectionable and greatly disadvantageous to communities of color in Harris County,” home to Houston, “and further impose unnecessary and overreaching burdens on Harris County voters in general.”

U.S. corporate leaders have found themselves increasingly at odds with both the Democratic and Republican parties. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains how they find themselves in an uncomfortable position. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

The proposed statement was never issued. In a letter reviewed by the Journal,

Bob Harvey,

the president and chief executive of the Greater Houston Partnership, told board members there was disagreement within the organization about whether to weigh in on the legislation.

“It is clear that there is not a consensus in favor of our taking a position for or against this legislation,” Mr. Harvey wrote.

Mr. Harvey’s response angered some board members, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokesman for the group confirmed the response from Mr. Harvey but declined to comment further.

Instead, some members joined to sign an open letter to Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, arguing that some of the bills’ provisions amount to voter suppression that targets people of color. Specifically, it raised concerns about the bills reallocating polling machines away from the city core, limiting voting options used widely by people of color and the possibility of allowing voter intimidation by poll watchers. The signatories, prominent Houston business leaders and others, said the legislation would damage the city’s competitiveness in attracting workers and businesses.

Todd Coerver,

CEO of P. Terry’s, a Central Texas burger chain that signed the Fair Elections Texas statement, said provisions in the Texas bills limiting early voting hours and placing additional requirements on mail-in voting would affect access for workers like his 920 employees. Frontline, hourly wage workers who don’t own cars have a more difficult time getting to polling places during regular business hours, he said.

“We don’t feel these are political statements in any way,” Mr. Coerver said. “This is about getting in front of things and making sure the slippery slope of limiting voting access does not happen in Texas.”

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Other corporate leaders don’t see it as their place to comment on voting legislation in individual states.

James Dimon,

CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said during an interview at the Journal’s CEO Council Summit Tuesday that the company has similar principles about free and fair elections as others. “Getting into the detail on 50 states, we’re not going to do,” Mr. Dimon said.

Brett Hurt,

the Austin-based CEO of data.world, a collaborative data company that also signed the Fair Elections Texas statement, said he has voted for Democrats and Republicans in the past, but has become increasingly concerned about efforts to tighten voting restrictions, despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud. In particular, he said he is concerned about provisions in the Texas bills that would require voting lists to be purged frequently of people possibly not eligible, which civil-rights groups said could result in eligible voters accidentally being struck.

“Show me data that there was actual fraud and then, great, I would support passing a law… but don’t make it up,” Mr. Hurt said. He added that business leaders typically don’t want to be painted as partisans, but are increasingly moved to weigh in on political issues they believe should not be partisan, such as voting.

“Trust in government has fallen, and people are expecting CEOs to help lead and speak,” he said.

Write to Elizabeth Findell at [email protected] and Chip Cutter at [email protected]

Fight Over Voting Laws

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