The political fight over Republican election bills intensified Tuesday as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick summoned reporters to the Capitol to angrily denounce business leaders and others who oppose the legislation, saying they are spewing lies by accusing the GOP of a racist effort to suppress voting rights.
At the same moment, Democrats and civil rights groups were holding their own news conference to unveil a concerted effort to pressure leading businesses to denounce the GOP bills as a travesty for democracy, following the lead of similar statements from Dell Technologies and American Airlines.
Opponents also want companies to stop giving political donations to Republican politicians who favor such legislation, and, to raise the pressure, they unveiled an economic analysis that said passing such laws would significantly hurt the Texas economy.
Caught in the crossfire, business leaders might find the coming weeks uncomfortable as they weigh whether to take positions that could alienate part of their customer base as well as powerful politicians.
Both sides of the fight made it clear Tuesday that they will be closely watching.
"We will remember those who take the right stand on this issue," said Devin Branch with the Texas Organizing Project, which opposes the GOP bills. "Nor shall we forget those who choose to remain silent, because on this issue, on matters of such consequence, silence is complicit."
Patrick, a conservative Republican who presides over the Senate, warned business leaders to butt out, shouting at times to get his point across.
"It used to be where you came to the Legislature to talk about policy that may have an impact on your business — regulations, financial issues, tax issues. Stick to that!" he said.
"Because let me tell you something, you keep meddling in issues that people have elected Republicans or Democrats to address," Patrick said, "You keep meddling in these issues without any understanding, or even reading bills, and you're turning off 50% or more of your potential customers."
While he's no fan of boycotts, Patrick said companies risk a backlash "if you want to get involved."
Gov. Greg Abbott had a similar message, telling Fox News on Tuesday: "It is ridiculous that we have some of these organizations that know nothing whatsoever about what the law provides," adding that "they need to stay out of politics, especially when they have no clue about what they're talking about."
Patrick also accused opponents in business, the media and the Democratic Party of lying about the effect of GOP legislation, particularly two omnibus voting measures, Senate Bill 7 (passed by the Senate last week) and House Bill 6 (awaiting a committee vote in the House).
"Senate Bill 7 is about voter security, not about vote suppression, and I'm tired of the lies and the nest of liars who continue to repeat that," he said.
Patrick took particular offense at opponents painting the GOP legislation as a return to the Jim Crow era of segregation by making it harder for voters, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, to cast a ballot.
"I take it personally. You're questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of Republicans who voted for this. You are in essence, between the lines, calling us racists, and that will not stand," Patrick said, shouting. "That will not stand."
At the rival news conference, conducted online, Democrats Beto O'Rourke and Julan Castro dismissed such concerns.
"This is a Republican Party power grab," said Castro, former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, arguing that election security is a pretext Republicans use to justify voter suppression after losing the presidential election in November.
Castro said the GOP bills also seek to legalize intimidation that is often directed at Black and Latino voters, particularly provisions allowing poll watchers — volunteers usually representing a political party or candidate — to take video of voters inside polling places if they merely suspect wrongdoing, "never mind that voter fraud almost never happens."
"Companies in the state of Texas and outside of it who do business here can choose to either stand on the side of making sure people have the right to vote and can exercise that right, or they can stand on the side of a party that wants to disenfranchise Black and brown voters to do that," Castro said.
Opponents also released preliminary findings by economist Ray Perryman, who said the GOP election bills, if passed, could cost $14.7 billion in economic activity in Texas and kill 73,000 jobs by 2025, largely by limiting political clout in certain communities, which translates into lower wages and less opportunity for education.
Losses from outside Texas, from reduced travel and tourism and actions similar to Major League Baseball's decision to move this summer's All-Star Game out of Georgia, which passed its own set of controversial election laws, could total $16.7 billion and almost 150,000 jobs by 2025, Perryman said.
The full report will be released in the coming days, said Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which commissioned the study.
By turning to Perryman, a leading Texas economist, opponents of the GOP bills took a page from the 2017 playbook in the fight over transgender-family bathrooms, when Perryman's dire economic predictions became central to successful efforts to block the legislation.
Patrick insisted Tuesday that opponents of SB 7 were lying about its effect and playing a dangerous game of race-baiting.
He said the bill does not single out Black and Hispanic voters but instead enhances election security by requiring paper backups for every ballot; enforcing consistent rules statewide on how ballots are counted; strengthening anti-fraud measures in mail-in voting to address shortcomings; ensuring privacy for disabled Texans voting curbside; securing computer components used to record and tally votes; and requiring counties with more than 100,000 residents to livestream the vote-counting process.
And while SB 7 bans 24-hour and drive-thru voting — recent Harris County innovations that Patrick said violate state law — the bill also allows polling places to remain open until 9 p.m. instead of the 7 p.m. limit under current law, he said.
Voters want confidence in the electoral system, Patrick said.
"Americans no longer trust the system. A country where voters do not trust the system is a country in peril," he said, noting that many people believe the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump, while Democrat Hillary Clinton questioned the results of her 2016 defeat by Trump.
Opponents of the GOP bills, however, accused Patrick of lying about the legislation's effect, cherry-picking provisions to gloss over problem areas while perpetuating the "big lie" that election fraud resulted in Trump's defeat.
For example, in the name of standardized voting practices, SB 7 would close mega-voting centers at arenas and stadiums in large cities and ban extended voting hours, Common Cause Texas spokesman Anthony Gutierrez said.
It also would allow poll watchers to shoot video of disabled voters getting help casting a ballot, change mail-in ballot drop-off rules and ban local officials from sending a vote-by-mail application unless requested by voters, he said.
"SB 7 is over 30 pages of substantive and discriminatory changes to how voting works," Gutierrez said. "Dan Patrick is straight-up lying to Texans in an attempt to save his floundering voter suppression bill."