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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Young is the assistant director of engagement for Mormon Women for Ethical Government.
Although I have lived in six states, I didn't realize until recently how much voting access still depends on the state in which you reside. While laws can no longer explicitly exclude entire groups of would-be voters based on their religion, gender or race, voting is by no means equally accessible in all states. Registration options, deadlines, early voting and so much more vary significantly from state to state.
Considering this variety, the question surfaces: To what extent should the federal government provide and protect voting rights? Today, this question pertains to the For the People Act, which would promote the freedom to vote for all Americans. But this is not a new question.
Americans have been debating the roles of the federal and state governments since our nation's inception. Because no national standards for voting rights were specified in the Constitution, states decided who could vote (primarily landowning white males) and where and when those ballots could be cast. However, Article I, Section 4, Clause 1 of the Constitution specifically affirms that "Congress may at any time by Law make or alter" the "Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections." The Constitution empowers Congress to respond to the needs of an expanding democracy.
While the 2020 election was rife with contention and disinformation, there are two reasons to commend it. First, it had the highest voter turnout (66 percent of eligible voters) in decades. Additionally, it was found to be "the most secure in American history" by some of the nation's top cybersecurity officials. In such a tumultuous year, these were two important indicators. A functioning democracy requires both high levels of voter turnout and election security.
Unfortunately, rather than asking how to promote both voter participation and election processes we can trust, state legislatures across the country are using the myth of voter fraud to introduce legislation to restrict voting access. Consequently, the further protection of voting rights provided the For the People Act is crucial. This bill establishes national standards for voting access in each state (as well as much-needed campaign finance and ethics reforms).
Though these voting reforms are well within the bounds of constitutionality, opponents claim S 1 (as the bill is known in the Senate, where it is now under consideration) would federalize our elections. Yet elections would still be administered locally, and state legislatures could establish differences to their elections as long as they meet the national standards in the For the People Act. Surely the federal government has the ability, if not even the responsibility, to protect the freedom to vote in federal elections for all eligible Americans? The majority of Americans believe so. The bill has substantial (and, notably, bipartisan) popular support. Even when presented with messaging explaining that opponents say "states should control their own elections," 68 percent of Americans (including 57 percent of Republicans) approve of the bill as a whole.
Historically, Confederate states used the claim of states' rights in their attempt to preserve slavery. Even after the 15th Amendment, Southern states used the power of states' rights to implement poll taxes, literacy tests, and other laws to exclude Blacks from voting. States' rights were so closely connected to racism that the short-lived States' Rights Democratic Party was created to promote racial segregation and white supremacy. It is no coincidence that former slave states currently have the most restrictive voting laws, disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities.
However, directly preceding the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many Americans favored federal intervention to guarantee voting rights. Polls show 76 percent of Americans supported a potential law to send federal officials to areas with low voter turnout to ensure Blacks and whites "are given an equal opportunity to register and to vote." When this question was framed alongside the viewpoint that it would impede the "rights of states to control their own elections," support dropped to 53 percent. The argument for states' rights diminished, but did not destroy, the desire of the majority of Americans for a federal guarantee of basic civil rights.
While local control over many legislative matters is appropriate and beneficial, the cry of states' rights has been used to restrict access to the ballot in the past. Voting is at the heart of representative government. Should our federally granted right to vote be determined locally? Today it appears that, despite alarmist language about nationalizing our elections, the public again supports using the federal government to secure voting rights for the people. Whether we live in a rural town or large city, a coastal state in the south or a landlocked state in the mountain west, the majority of Americans want equal freedom to vote. Are our elected officials up for the dialogue and collaboration necessary to make that happen?
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Following in the footsteps of neighboring Georgia, Florida has become the second battleground state to pass an election overhaul bill designed to roll back access to absentee voting.
GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee pushed the legislation through both chambers Thursday, largely along party lines, with only one Republican senator voting against it. The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has touted Florida's current election system as "the gold standard." He is likely to sign the bill.
Despite finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud, Republicans maintained this legislation would make Florida's elections more secure. Former President Donald Trump won Florida by 3.3 percentage points in the 2020 election.
Once approved by the governor, this bill will enact a long list of election changes, mostly aimed at restricting voting by mail.
Floridians who wish to vote by mail or make changes to their voter registration will be required to provide their driver's license number, state-issued ID number or last four digits of their Social Security number. They will also need to request an absentee ballot for each election, with the bill prohibiting permanent vote-by-mail lists.
The use of drop boxes for absentee ballots will be limited, but not completely banned, as was originally proposed by GOP lawmakers. Drop boxes will be available only during early voting hours, when they will be monitored. The location of a drop box cannot be changed within 30 days of an election.
Electioneering activity will be prohibited within 150 feet of a drop box, like it is for polling locations. The legislation prevents people from "engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or the effect of influencing a voter," but allows election workers or volunteers to hand out food or water to voters in line in a nonpartisan way.
This legislation also targets so-called "ballot harvesting" by prohibiting the possession of two or more absentee ballots. Additionally, it allows partisan poll watchers to closely observe the ballot counting process and more easily dispute ballots that are wet, wrinkled or otherwise too damaged to run through voting machines.
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, lambasted the Florida Legislature for approving the changes, saying it will only make it harder for people to have their voices heard and ballots counted.
"Florida's Republican legislative leaders seem determined to weaken the system that voters have relied on, without significant problems, for the better part of a generation — a system that was originally created by Republicans," she said in a statement.
Many of these provisions match elements of the Georgia law enacted in March. Other GOP-led states, like Texas and Arizona, are advancing similar legislation.
Meanwhile Democrats are advocating for more expansive measures, such as restoring voting rights for felons, adopting same-day or automatic voter registration, and implementing no-excuse absentee voting.
Democrats and voting rights advocacy groups also argue restricting access to the ballot box disproportionately affects voters who are nonwhite, disabled and elderly.
"Senate Bill 90 is one part of a multi-pronged strategy to shift power away from Florida communities toward legislative bodies that are reliably anti-voter," said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project. "We must see this legislation for what it is: an effort to block the rising political power of Floridians of color as the state demographics increasingly 'browns.'"
Good-government groups are keeping the pressure on Congress to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping democracy reform bill that includes protections against provisions include in the Florida and Georgia bills. House Democrats passed HR 1 in March, but the bill faces a much steeper challenge in the 50-50 Senate with the filibuster still intact.
"Florida is following Georgia in a race to the bottom by erecting barriers to voting that are politically motivated," said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United and Let America Vote. "It's imperative that the Senate pass the For the People Act to fight back against this anti-democratic attack on the right to vote."
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President Biden is spending Thursday in Georgia, the symbolic center of the voting rights debate, hours after making an impassioned call for reforming and sustaining democracy the finale for his first address to Congress.
The main reason for the trip is to pitch his ambitious $4 trillion plans to refashion the economy, rebuild its physical underpinnings and expand the government's social services system. But he's also visiting Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency on a promise to revive democratic norms after Watergate, and holding a rally in a place that's long been central to the voting rights fight.
"We have to prove democracy still works," Biden said at the wrapped up his nationally televised speech Wednesday night. He urged quick passage of the sweeping remake of federal election, campaign finance and government ethics rules known as HR 1 along with separate legislation to revive federal oversight in places with histories of voter suppression.
"Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America's adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting we can't," the president told the lawmakers. "We have to prove them wrong."
His words underscored a fundamental change in where the government's systemic dysfunctions rate on the roster of national challenges. When Biden started running for president three years ago, neither he nor any of the other top-tier candidates spent much time talking about the threats to the nation's well-being posed by that polarized partisanship and distrust in governance. A pandemic that threatened the nation's ability to hold an election, a president fermenting conspiracy theories about massive vote fraud and a violent insurrection at the Capitol have now prompted the new president to proclaim the survivability of democracy an "existential crisis."
Restoring faith in the system, he said, would be aided the most by a season of legislative productivity — a convenient truism, to be sure, given that would result in Biden's sprawling plans for expanded government getting through a narrowly Democratic Congress where almost every Republican opposes almost everything he's asking for. To overcome that resistance, Biden also appealed to every American's sense of responsibility to enhance democracy with civic engagement — confident that many more GOP-leaning voters than GOP lawmakers support his agenda.
The president also made an explicit appeal for enactment of a remade Voting Rights Act, which seeks to combat racial discrimination in election systems, and what sponsors call the For the People Act, which would set federal standards for registration, early voting and absentee ballot access that could not be undercut by the wave of more restrictive legislation now moving through Republican-run state legislatures across the country.
"More people voted in the last presidential election than any time in American history, in the middle of the worst pandemic ever," Biden said. " It should be celebrated. Instead, it's being attacked."
The comprehensive bill to countermand that attack has passed the House and will soon move through committee in the Senate. But after that the measure has no future unless it's scaled back dramatically, which most major democracy reform groups ardently oppose, or it becomes the vehicle for an unprecedented weakening of the legislative filibuster — which for now means the Republicans can stop the bill in its tracks. The showdown now looks likely in July or August.
The voting rights legislation, named for the late civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, has not started to move but is on a similar trajectory as HR 1: smooth sailing through the House but dead-on-arrival in the Senate while the filibuster remains.
In a signal that Biden has elevated the issue near the top of his agenda, a voting rights campaign will soon be unveiled by Building Back Together, a nonprofit advocacy group recently created by the president's allies to promote his to-do list. The group will lobby for the two pieces of legislation in Congress while also working to overcome — or thwart the enactment of — restrictive GOP legislation in nine states: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
Biden was the first Democrat to carry Georgia in 28 years, in part because he ran up significant margins in such fast-growing and racially diverse places as Gwinnett County, suburbs northeast of Atlanta where the legacies of the Jim Crow past still resound. That is where Thursday evening's drive-in rally will take place.
That will be preceded by his visit to the Carter home in Plains. Biden was the first senator to endorse Carter back in 1976. Now 96, he is the longest-living former president but remains vocal on many issues, most recently deriding the newly restrictive voting law of his home state. Biden has called the measure written by the Republican General Assembly a "sick" and "un-American" response to former President Donald Trump's fact-free allegations of massive election cheating last year.
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