Opinion | America’s Billionaires Could Help Protect the Election. If They Wanted To.
I recently wrote that Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful unelected man in America. His and Facebook’s efforts to try to combat election-related disinformation on its platform, however comforting, were merely “an admission of a great power that should make Americans uncomfortable,” I said.
Some readers argued I had it wrong. First, criticizing the helpful efforts of Silicon Valley are counterproductive at a time when we need all hands on deck, they wrote. Second, I was too narrowly focused on one man. Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook are far from the only powerful entities who could, with a few executive decisions, meaningfully affect the 2020 election. In other words, what is notable is how much power and influence America’s plutocrats have and how little they seem to be using it.
So what could the tech giants and big business do to help secure a free and fair election, if they wanted to?
Some ideas are simple: Turn Election Day into a company holiday. Facebook recently took a version of this step, giving paid time off to its tens of thousands of U.S. employees to vote and to volunteer as poll workers. It’s a meaningful step and one that all large companies should adopt. Apple, which has over 90,000 U.S. employees, did something similar but only offered employees four hours of paid time off. With more than 500,000 full- and part-time U.S. employees, Amazon, especially, could take its cue from Best Buy and roughly 1,000 other companies that have pledged to give some time off to those who volunteer to work at the polls.
The companies ought to go much further, making the day a company holiday. As Marketplace reported in 2018, the day is already a huge productivity drain for Americans. Plenty of workers sneak away from the office to vote anyhow. And the anxieties and excitements of the day are a distraction. One estimate in 2018 from Challenger, Gray & Christmas suggested that the election could cost the U.S. economy up to $3.5 billion per hour. It’s a good argument to cut the losses altogether and give people the space to exercise a fundamental right of citizenship.
Uber and Lyft will offer discounts to those riding to the polls, but they could do more to prioritize subsidized or free, safe rides to polling places. They could incentivize their contract workers to pick up individuals in remote areas by subsidizing them for the trip out. Another possibility is to pair drivers with riders who have the same polling place, and once they arrive, the companies could pay for the drivers’ time as they wait to vote.
Those are the straightforward solutions. But if we’re daydreaming, the options are endless. Companies could pledge to pay for adequate personal protective equipment at all polling stations for anyone who needs it. Microsoft, Google, Mozilla and other browser builders could make useful voting information and validated updates from secretary of state websites the default home page in their browsers. Facebook’s election dashboard could replace users’ home screen, forcing users to click away from it to engage with standard news feeds or groups and pages. As returns come in on election night, that crucial internet real estate could be prominently displayed all night with only validated election results, offering a sober look at “What we know” before users have a chance to enter the chaotic frenzy of their algorithmic feeds.
“Anyone who influences your physical or mental space, anyone who has the ability to place news or content in those spaces — or take it out — that’s real power,” Aviv Ovadya, the founder of the Thoughtful Technology Project, told me. “Jeff Bezos has great influence over our physical space, while Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and others take up the physical space on our screens.”
Mr. Ovadya was one of the people who suggested thinking bigger about tech’s influence. He’s a thoughtful critic of Big Tech who also wants to incentivize the industry to make systemic changes. “Jeff Bezos could probably decide and then use his company’s infrastructure to help ensure that mail-in ballots are reliably delivered,” he said, though he admitted it would be logistically tricky and, arguably, far too late for such an endeavor. “Tim Cook and Apple could shove ‘I registered to vote, on this site’ as a suggested message into iMessage, encouraging people to share it in natural conversations with those you’re texting.”
He doesn’t want to limit participation to tech giants. He mused that most S & P 500 companies could use their power to try to bake some stability into our currently unstable politics. “Beyond voting,” Mr. Ovadya said, “you could imagine the companies coming together with a pledge that others could sign that said something to the effect of ‘I agree upfront to abide by the results of the election as certified by the Electoral College and Supreme Court’” (a scenario that has grown even more complicated in recent days).
Mr. Ovadya’s argument is compelling. With tensions and anxiety about potential claims of voter fraud and postelection unrest mounting, surely it makes sense to do anything possible to ensure a fair, free, transparent and universally accepted election. Mr. Ovadya notes that encouraging corporate involvement also has the added benefit of not alienating the nation’s most powerful unelected individuals.
The skeptic in me still bristles. I want a smooth and fair election as much as the next person, and yet any entreaty feels a bit to me like begging the person who pushed you into the deep end of the pool to save you from drowning.
“We don’t need the billionaire class and the tech robber barons to ask the question ‘What can I do for the country?’” Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All,” told me recently. “They need to ask, ‘What have I been doing to the country and what could I stop doing?’” He argued that our understandable desire to have benevolent billionaires and corporations step in to help during periods of instability is part of an abusive relationship between the plutocrats and the rest of us, and that their perceived heroics would only be exploiting a moment of weakness to further entrench their power.
But in moments of desperation it may be hard for anxious Americans to hear that argument. I asked Mr. Giridharadas what he’d say to those willing to hold their nose and make the trade-off. “You are being sold a fraudulent promise that the people who caused this mess can lead us out of it,” he said. “That the people most responsible for an age of inequality and collapsing social mobility are our salvation. That the arsonists of opportunity in America can come back as firefighters.”
This is a debate about how to harness power at a critical time. About whether Americans should use the moment to pressure power to exert itself for a favorable outcome for democracy or whether its more important to use the moment to dismantle and decenter power (or whether that’s a false choice altogether). And then there’s the powerful themselves. It’s notable that given all the possible ways America’s elites could help secure a free and fair election, few have stepped up in a truly meaningful way.
It takes courage to accept help in a desperate moment. Just as it takes courage to turn away from tainted charity in a time of need. And for those who have power, it takes courage to expose it and exercise it for the greater good, rather than hide and conserve it for one’s own benefit.
To get through the next few months, we’ll need a lot of courage from everyone.
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