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Some US Companies Decry Voter Suppression Laws While Funding Their Sponsors

Companies stating support for voting rights have funneled donations to the authors of voter suppression bills.

People wait in line to participate in early voting on October 31, 2020, in Greenville, South Carolina.

In April 2021, as Republican-controlled states began passing bills that will restrict voting in upcoming elections, cable and media giant Comcast put out a statement declaring its opposition to the measures.

“We believe that all Americans should enjoy equitable access to secure elections and we have long supported and promoted voter education, registration and participation campaigns across the country to achieve that goal,” the company said in a statement it provided to Deadline. “Efforts to limit or impede access to this vital constitutional right for any citizen are not consistent with our values.”

In the following months, however, Comcast and its political action committees made donations to several Republican lawmakers who authored voter suppression bills that were signed into law last year. At least 19 states enacted 33 laws that further restrict access to voting in 2021, according to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan institute Brennan Center for Justice.

On October 15, Comcast donated $1,000 to Florida Sen. Dennis Baxley, the sole sponsor of SB 90, a 48-page bill that, among other measures, makes it a misdemeanor to give water — or anything else — to people waiting in line to vote in the sweltering Florida heat, similar to a restriction that first appeared in Georgia Republicans’ suppression bill. Baxter’s bill eliminates 24/7 ballot drop boxes and requires such boxes to be monitored at all times and only available during in-person voting hours. It also requires voters seeking an absentee ballot to submit a driver’s license or Social Security number and requires voters to reapply for mail ballots more often, among its many other provisions that make voting more difficult.

The League of Women Voters of Florida, Black Voters Matter Fund, and Florida voters have filed a lawsuit to stop Baxley’s bill, which Gov. DeSantis signed into law in May. The lawsuit argues that the bill is designed to make it more difficult for seniors, minorities, and young people to vote and violates people’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Comcast made several other donations to voter suppression bill sponsors after it put out its statement, Sludge found by reviewing donations to the sponsors of new restrictive voting laws identified by the Brennan Center. The company donated $1,000 in September to Alabama Republican State Representative Alan Baker, the sponsor of a new law that shortens the window of time people have for requesting an absentee ballot. It also made donations to the sponsors of new Brennan Center-identified voter suppression laws in Utah and Kansas.

Pharmaceutical company Merck signed a pro-voting rights statement that was published as an advertisement in the New York Times on April 14. “For American democracy to work for any of us, we must ensure the right to vote for all of us,” the ad reads. “We call upon all Americans to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic and fundamental right of all Americans.”

After signing the ad, Merck donated $1,000 in September to Florida’s Baxley and $1,000 in October to Texas Republican State Senator Lois Kolkhorst, the primary sponsor of one of the state’s two new voter suppression laws and a cosponsor of the other one.

Kolkhorst’s bill, SB 1111, which was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, limits the types of addresses people can use to register to vote in ways that could be difficult for people who move often or are homeless. The bill says that people can’t use addresses where they do not live full time, and it allows voting officials to demand voters show documents to prove their place of residence. With few exceptions, Texans would not be able to use commercial post office boxes as their registration addresses, a practice that Democratic attorney Marc Elias says is often used by churches that help homeless people register to vote.

Kolkhorst was also one of the 14 cosponsors of SB 1, an omnibus voter suppression law that bans drive-through voting and 24-hour voting locations, requires voters to provide driver’s license or Social Security numbers to request absentee ballots, prohibits election officials from proactively mailing out ballots, says poll watchers can not be denied “free movement” in polling places, and more. The Brennan Center is suing Gov. Abbott in an attempt to stop the law, which it says is “a reaction to Texas’s changing electorate, which is now more racially diverse and younger than ever before.”

JPMorgan Chase also donated to a cosponsor of Texas SB 1, giving $1,000 from its PAC to Sen. Dawn Buckingham in September. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon released a statement in March saying that “as state capitals debate election laws, we believe voting must be accessible and equitable,” and that “We regularly encourage our employees to exercise their fundamental right to vote, and we stand against efforts that may prevent them from being able to do so.”

AT&T is another company whose political donations seem to contradict its public statements.

“We believe the right to vote is sacred and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections,” reads an April statement from AT&T CEO John Stankey. “We are working together with other businesses through groups like the Business Roundtable to support efforts to enhance every person’s ability to vote.”

In September, AT&T donated $1,000 to Alabama Republican Wes Allen, the chief sponsor of H.B. 285, a new state law that prohibits election officials from setting up curbside voting, ballot drop boxes, or putting voting machines outside of polling locations. The company’s Oklahoma PAC also donated $2,500 that month to Oklahoma Senate Republican Majority Leader Kim David, the sponsor of a new state law that shortens the deadline for applying for a mail-in ballot from 7 days before an election to 15 days before the election, among other provisions.

AT&T and its PACs also donated $500 to Florida’s Baxley in March, after the senator had formally introduced his voter suppression bill, and made donations to sponsors of Brennan Center-identified restrictive voting laws in Utah and Kansas.

Other companies and organizations that donated to the sponsors of Brennan Center-identified state voter suppression measures after publicly denouncing them earlier this year include General Motors and Planned Parenthood, whose PACs contributed to Democratic New York senators who cosponsored a bill that shortens the window for applying for a mail-in ballot, and Microsoft, which donated to a Kansas Republican representative who chairs the committee that sponsored a new law limiting mail-in voting.

AT&T, Merck, and Comcast did not respond to Sludge’s requests for comment on how their donations to the sponsors of voter suppression bills relate to their public expressions in favor of voting rights. JPMorgan Chase declined to comment.