87th LegislatureLocal NewsHouston Business Group’s Neutral Stance on Election Reforms Draws Ire of Harris County Judge, Mayor

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner condemned a business coalition's “silence” on election legislation and canceled participation in upcoming events.
May 5, 2021
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After a prominent Houston chamber of commerce group declined to take a formal position on election reform bills proceeding through the Texas legislature, Harris County’s top elected Democrats say they will not participate in the group’s landmark events.

The Greater Houston Partnership (GHP), touted as the largest and most prominent chamber of commerce organization in the region, typically hosts the annual “State of the City” and “State of County” addresses, but Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) announced Wednesday that they would not be attending this year.

Last month, 10 members of the more than 100-member GHP board of directors pressured the group’s top officers to take a formal stance on election reform bills. When GHP declined to do so, the 10 joined other business owners from the region in penning a letter to Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) voicing opposition to the proposed legislation. 

During a Wednesday press conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner specifically decried House Bill (HB) 6 and Senate Bill (SB) 7 as attempts to restrict access to voting.

“These bills…would deny, restrict access to the voting booth, [and] literally would allow people to go around, partisan poll watchers, to video people while they are voting with the intent of intimidating people while they are actually voting.”

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On April 1, GHP released a neutral statement emphasizing that elections should be open and accessible “by all, while maintaining confidence in the electoral process itself.” 

“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 group wrote.

Turner however rejected characterizations of pending legislation as partisan, saying, “There is nothing partisan in voter suppression.”

Noting that corporations such as American Airlines, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard had voiced opposition to the reforms, Hidalgo said, “There’s a group sticking out like a sore thumb for failing to speak up.”

“Right now, voting rights are falling like dominoes in states across the country, from Georgia to Arizona, to right here in Texas, and yet, the largest chamber of commerce in the Houston area is silent.”

Hidalgo added that the legislative proposals were a direct attack on Harris County which had implemented significant changes to election procedures during the 2020 elections.

Some of the changes attempted by the county, such as the mass mailing of unsolicited mail ballots and mail ballot applications, were blocked prior to the election, and one federal court judge expressed doubts about the legality of the county’s drive-thru voting stations leading the interim clerk to close them down before election day.

The GHP released a statement to Houston Public Media expressing regret over the cancellations.

“We trust that Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo respect that the Partnership has its own process by which our 140 member board takes policy positions on behalf of our 1,000 member companies, a process that requires a clear board consensus which does not exist on the legislation. As in this case, this process does not always lead to alignment with our elected officials.”

In response to a reporter’s question related to business owners being afraid to speak out for fear of being added to a “wall of shame,” Hidalgo answered, “We need them to step up this time and a lot of them are.”

“It isn’t actually that hard to come out and take a stand in opposition to voter suppression.”

Last year Turner came under fire for establishing an online “wall of shame” for area businesses that did not comply with COVID-19 restrictions, prompting some of those named to accuse the mayor of employing “secret criteria.” 

Harris County Democrats and other groups have previously vocalized opposition to the reforms as voter suppression, drawing responses from both Phelan and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick who said officials at American Airlines should “read the damn bill.”

The two main election integrity bills at issue would refine different portions of Texas election law. HB 6 authored by Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) includes multiple revisions including expanded protections for poll watchers, prohibitions against sending out unsolicited mail ballot applications, and requiring those assisting voters to show identification. 

SB 7 authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) also addresses multiple issues and includes requirements for countywide polling places to have “approximately the same number” of voting machines as any other countywide polling places, for voting locations to be located indoors, and would allow poll watchers to video proceedings.

Both Hidalgo and Turner said that the county and city had already paid membership dues to GHP for the year.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.