As the Texas Legislature continues its push to pass legislation tightening voting rules, Lone Star State businesses are ignoring demands from Republican leaders to stay out of the debate.
This week, two business coalitions released separate letters calling for expanded ballot access in Texas, although they used different language in their demands.
These coalitions and other voting rights activists are hoping to modify if not derail two bills that limit voting options and create criminal penalties they believe could intimidate potential voters.
Fair Elections Texas, a business coalition that includes Microsoft, American Airlines, Sodexho and nearly 50 other corporations and business groups, did not specifically cite the bills pending in the legislature when writing, "When more people participate in our democratic process, we will all prosper."
"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," their statement reads.
But nearly 200 Houston business leaders used more aggressive language in an open letter to the speaker of the Texas House, citing "evidence of voter suppression in the two omnibus voting rights bills" under consideration.
The letter goes on to identify specific examples of suppression, including:
- Removing polling machines from Houston.
- Limiting extended voting house and drive-through options.
- Loosening the rules for partisan poll watchers.
- Making it harder for people with disabilities to get assistance voting.
"These provisions, among others, will inevitably damage our competitiveness in attracting businesses and workers to Houston," they wrote. "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."
Houston — located in Harris County, one of the most populous and ethnically diverse counties in the country — would be directly impacted by the legislation. Harris County, which includes majority-Democratic Houston, made extensive use of drive-through and after-hours voting options in 2020.
Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston claims that more than half the people voting in their cars were Black, Latino or Asian.
These efforts follow on the heels of a petition led by two large Texas employers, American Airlines and Dell Technologies, calling out "any discriminatory language" in pending legislation.
Ever since Georgia kicked off the Republican-driven state legislative effort to tighten voting rules in March, a number of major employers, beginning with Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, have spoken out in opposition.
Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, have criticized corporations for weighing in on politics.
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Iowa is already seeing the effects of the year's first Republican-driven curbs on voting. The state's elections administrator has told 294,000 Iowans they've been targeted for an eventual purge from the registration list — simply because they did not vote last year.
GOP Secretary of State Paul Pate's office revealed this week that postcards have been mailed to more than 13 percent of the state's electorate telling them they are "inactive" voters because they did not cast any ballot in 2020. The list includes about 400 teenagers who were allowed to register even though they turned 18 after Election Day.
Pate was required to act under the sweeping tightening of election rules approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in February, despite united Democratic opposition. Like fellow Republicans nationwide, the GOP acted in the name of preventing the sort of election cheating that Democrats accurately describe as almost non-existent.
Keeping voter rolls up to date enjoys bipartisan support as a good-government best practice, but Republicans generally want to move much more aggressively than Democrats — who say the risk of fraud is much less than the risk that eligible voters will get purged.
Previously, voters had to miss two consecutive general elections to be moved to inactive status. That designation does not immediately limit the ability to vote, but instead puts the Iowan on notice their registration will be canceled if they remain politically silent through 2024. Requesting an absentee ballot, voting in any election or re-registering at a new address will restore an Iowan's active voter status.
"Incorrectly inactivating voters is a chill to voters across the state," said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat considering a challenge to Pate's re-election next year. "It sows distrust and uncertainty while also discouraging voters from voting."
The new law is in some ways more restrictive than the one in Georgia, which has gained much more notoriety because the Peach State is a newly purple presidential battleground — and both civil rights groups and some big companies have derided the effort as all about suppressing the vote of the one-third of Georgians who are Black.
In Iowa (which is 4 percent Black) there will now be nine fewer days for early voting and an hour less for voting on Election Day. Counties may no longer proactively send out absentee ballot request forms or set up more than a single drop box, and they are no longer permitted to count ballots postmarked on time but delayed in the mail. And Iowans may no longer turn over their sealed vote envelopes for delivery by partisan operatives or community activists, the practice critics deride as "ballot harvesting."
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This is the 11th installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, Bob LaRocca, executive director of the Voter Protection Corps, answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization uses data-driven solutions to battle voter suppression and disenfranchisement. LaRocca's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
American voters, election officials and election workers achieved a remarkable feat in 2020: holding a presidential election during a once-in-a-century pandemic and still achieving the highest turnout in history. Some states, like New Hampshire and South Carolina, adopted significant voting expansions on a temporary basis to address the challenges Covid-19 presented. Others like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia implemented major permanent advances in voting rights for the first time. The Voter Protection Corps was proud to work with city, state and local officials to help ensure that every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted. The Voter Protection Corps released a national action plan to protect in-person voting, recruited poll workers across the county, and ensured students in New Hampshire had the resources they needed to vote. We also partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to create a data tool to identify counties at risk for voting challenges and the possibility of voter disenfranchisement due to vast poll worker recruitment shortfalls.
And your biggest setback?
Even though we made progress in 2020, we faced constant threats to safely casting a ballot, a commander-in-chief who spread disinformation and encouraged voter suppression at every turn, and an attack on our Capitol by white supremacists trying to overturn the election. And while we did everything in our power to ensure every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted, there is no doubt that these suppressive measures affected the behavior of many voters. Our electoral system was broken long before Trump and his enablers gained power.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
It's so important to be patient with the process during an election, and especially on Election Day. Anyone who has volunteered or worked in an election knows how difficult it is to wait for the results, but given the unique circumstances of 2020, this feeling was exacerbated among our staff. We constantly had to remind ourselves, and everyone in our communities: Every vote must be counted and we won't know the winner of the presidential election on election night. That is okay. Many states have antiquated systems of waiting to count mail-in ballots and, as a result, those ballots took a few days to process. It was more critical in 2020 to remind ourselves, our friends and our families to be patient through this process.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
Even though we made tremendous progress in 2020, election administration in the United States is a patchwork, with differing state laws, thousands of local election jurisdictions nationwide, countless outdated systems and policies, and a history of unequal access that dates back to the founding. We have a long way to go to ensure every eligible voter can register, vote and have their vote counted.
Thankfully, we know how to get there. This year, the Voter Protection Corps will focus our efforts on pushing state and local leaders to implement important reforms outlined in our Democracy Benchmark. The report provides specific recommendations, including:
- Voter registration: Every state must offer same-day registration, ensure online voter registration is accessible and entirely online for all eligible voters, adopt automatic voter registration, relax restrictions on third-party voter registration, allow teenagers to pre-register, and end the racist practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions.
- Voting in person: Every state must provide access to at least 15 days of early voting with uniform hours that include mornings, nights and weekends; allow voters to vote at any Election Day voter center in their local election jurisdiction rather than requiring voters to use an assigned polling place; abolish or relax discriminatory and unnecessary voter identification requirements; reduce the risk of frivolous and intimidating voter challenges; and minimize law enforcement presence at voting sites.
- Vote by mail: Every state must adopt no-excuse voting by mail, allow voters to request mail ballots online, provide multiple options for returning mail ballots (including by mail, at a dropbox or voting site, and allowing a person the voter trusts to return the ballot for them), provide prepaid postage, ensure all mail ballots received within a week of Election Day are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, prevent local election offices from rejecting mail ballots unnecessarily, and provide voters the opportunity to fix problems that cause their mail ballots to be rejected.
- Election administration capacity: Every state must assume responsibility for ensuring that local election offices have the funding and flexibility they need for adequate capacity during election season. State election offices should also have the funding, infrastructure and mandate to ensure that every eligible voter is able to vote conveniently, and that their votes are counted.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
State and local leaders carry great responsibility for righting many of the wrongs we saw in 2020, and many of the states where reform is needed most continue to be led by forces that oppose increased access. Still, it is also essential that the Biden administration and Congress prioritize voting rights at the federal level. We encourage Congress to quickly pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Act, among other measures.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
Those responsible for perpetuating disinformation and attempting to overthrow our democracy in the horrific attack at the Capitol — including President Donald Trump and Republican members of Congress — must be held accountable. Policymakers must not use lies about the integrity of our election to justify voter suppression. State legislatures across the country are seeking to curtail voting opportunities that have been proven to expand access to the ballot — such as early and mail-in voting -— and erect other barriers that make it harder for people to vote. The challenges before us are daunting. We must ensure that efforts to advance voting rights don't dissipate as we move away from the election. The Voter Protection Corps will continue to fight any efforts to suppress legitimate votes and use data to support state and local leaders as they continue to ensure that every American has safe, convenient, and equal access to their most fundamental right.
Finish the sentence. In two years, American democracy will ...
be innovative, efficient and inclusive.
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Efforts to make voting more complicated have lurched forward this week in the Republican-run legislatures of three additional major partisan battlegrounds.
The Arizona House voted Tuesday to purge inconsistent voters from the roster of people who are sent a mail-in ballot before every election. Hours later in Florida, a Senate committee advanced a package of fresh restrictions on voting. And GOP powers in Ohio put the finishing touches on their own multifaceted plan to make access to the ballot box more difficult.
Business executives have joined Democrats and civil rights advocates to excoriate all those efforts as aiming to disenfranchise voters of color — an argument that has not stopped fresh curbs from being enacted this year, in the name of bolstered election security, in purple states from Georgia to Iowa and most recently Montana.
These are the details of the developments in the states with the freshest legislative activity:
The measure is now one roll call, in the GOP-run Senate, away from the desk of Republican Gov. Steve Ducey.
The vote in the House was 31-29 along party lines, promoted mainly by Republicans who have continued to push the evidence-free allegation that fraud cost former President Donald Trump the state's 11 electoral votes last year.
Under their bill, people who don't return any ballot for any election for four years would be dropped from the roster of voters — which now includes three-quarters of Arizonans — who receive vote-by-mail packets before each election. (They would first get a warning they have 90 days to ask to stay on the list.)
About 200,000 voters, or one in five, sat out the primary and general elections in both 2018 and 2020 and would be subject to the purge. Republicans say the measure is justified to keep not-completed ballots out of the wrong hands. Democrats say the result would be confusion and ultimately suppression — especially of Latinos, Native Americans, young people and partian independents.
Greater Phoenix Leadership, a business group, and more than 50 company executives including the owner of the Arizona Cardinals have come out against the bill and two others that have not advanced as far in the Legislature, one to shrink the period for mail-in voting and the other to stiffen proof-of-identification requirements for those using the forms.
"These measures seek to disenfranchise voters. They are 'solutions' in search of a problem. They are attempts at voter suppression cloaked as reform — plain and simple," they said in an open letter last week, warning that passage could taint the state's reputation as a good place to live and work.
President Biden was the first Democrat to carry the state in six elections, albeit by just 10,000 votes out of 3.3 million cast, and after the November election Arizona has two Democratic senators for the first time since 1968.
The Senate Rules Committee approved the bill, 10-7. One Republican joined every Democrat in opposing it, despite GOP sponsors abandoning some of the more aggressive ideas in their original package — including intensified signature-matching rules for voters and an outright ban on drop boxes.
Instead, the bill would make drop boxes available only during early voting hours, not around the clock. It also would bar political operations from delivering water to voters within 150 feet of a polling place, add more ID requirements to vote-by-mail applications, end the ability of voters to be on a permanent roll to receive an absentee ballot for each election, limit third-party collections of ballots and boost the powers of partisan observers during vote tabulation.
As in other states, the debate was between Republicans who said they wanted to prevent cheating that otherwise "could happen," and Democrats who said that warding off a hypothetical was much less of a problem than suppressing the vote.
As approved, the measure is quite similar to a bill awaiting a vote in the Republican-majority House. But unless identical language wins passage in both chambers by the end of next week, when the Legislature adjourns, no voting bill will be presented to GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis this year. Florida has for a decade been considered the biggest purple state, but Republicans have won every topflight statewide contest in the past five years.
Republican legislators and GOP Secretary of State Frank LaRose say they are close to unveiling an election law overhaul proposal they believe can win bipartisan backing.
But a draft of the legislation that circulated last week prompted state House Democtatic Leader Emilia Sykes to send out a fundraising email describing the bill as "so draconian that the Georgia law looks mild in comparison."
That draft would ban ballot drop boxes, require two forms of ID to vote early or by mail, and eliminate early-in person balloting the Monday before the election. But negotiators say they are also considering a collection of proposals to ease voting, including a new online system and a later deadline to apply for an absentee ballot.
One draft version would prohibit the state from paying the postage on returned absentee ballots. Another would mandate postage-paid envelopes with all ballot request forms and ballots.
Unlike many other states, the Ohio Legislature meets all year — so there is plenty of time to alter rules ahead of the next election, when the marquee race in Ohio will be for an open, now-Republcian-held Senate seat. Trump secured its 18 electoral votes twice, meaning last year was the first time since 1860 that Ohio did not vote for the presidential victor.
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