The Expensify election email
It's been clear for many months that the 2020 USA presidential is a big deal for a lot of people, with the amount of energy and attention rising throughout the year. When I was walking around doing some exercise just before the polling day I saw someone wearing a "Biden Harris 2020" election campaign TShirt. Honestly I found this to be quite strange since I was walking around just about as far as possible from the USA because I was in Australia at the time. Thinking about this some more I found it a bit unsettling, I'm not sure what the purpose of trying to convince Australians about a candidate in the USA election, in which they cannot vote, is exactly. Is the idea to get people in Australia to then hassle the people they know in the USA to vote in a particular way? Americans encouraging foreigners to meddle in their domestic politics is a bit of a strange idea. Just like if it were the other way around this all strikes me inappropriate, we need less foreign interference in domestic politics not more. This was an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come later that day when I received an email from Expensify that was urging me to vote for Biden. If you are interested in the contents of this email see the end of the article as I quote it in its entirety there.
There was a fairly large amount of controversy around this email, with some on Twitter saying it was unprecedented.
I do admire the lack of political apathy that individuals are showing lately but I must say this email from a corporation struck me as being inappropriate for a few reasons. The most obvious one is that getting an email as an Australian customer telling me that I should vote for a specific candidate in the American foreign election is awkward at the very least. I feel like if Australian companies were to indiscriminantly send emails to their American customers with advice for who to vote for in an Australian election it would be equally absurd and inappropriate. Also given various election laws and data privacy/usage laws in various parts of the world I'm not entirely sure this email was legal in many jurisdictions in which it was received. Specifically emails used from company work had just been co-opted into a political campaign, many people would have had their emails signed up for them and are now getting something that's pretty close to spam. There's a fairly good chance this was never mentioned in the user agreement, and honestly if this was explicitly covered in the user agreement I'd never have signed up if I saw it.
The reason this email makes me uncomfortable is not a partisan one and really isn't even to do with the upcoming election in the USA, since I can't even vote in that election. As a general rule I strongly feel as though the business sector should not be pressuring people to vote in a certain way. This is especially the case with regards to putting any sort of pressure on employees to conform to a political position, this I think is especially toxic to the ideas of democracy. If I got an email at work where the management or the board told me to vote for a specific candidate this would make for a very uncomfortable place to work at even if I agreed with their candidate. Coming back to the partisan angle for a moment, one of the most disturbing trends I'm seeing is a further slide into hyper-partisan politics that is more about belonging to a "team" than anything else. In this mindset "winning" becomes more important than the constitution, "winning" becomes more important than good policy, and so on. The goal can quickly shift from good governance to trying to ensure that one's team is in power no matter what. The more denigrated the other team is the easier this slide happens.
Something that this email does address is that democracy needs to be actively fought for, unfortunately it is very easy for democracies to die which is why over the course of history we mostly haven't seen democracies as the form of rule. The decision by Coinbase to explicitly focus on their mission and not politics strikes me as a good policy for a company to take and perhaps a healthy way for a corporation to work in a democratic society. A democratic system should work to get the best outcomes for all the citizens, not for the majority of the money. We need less money in politics if our democracies are to have any chance to survive at all. I also think liberties that people have fought hard over the generations need to be upheld. From the perspective of upholding liberty it's also troubling if corporations are engaging in partisan politics since these are the sorts of activities that lead to lobbying and regulatory capture. You'll notice in the email that the author claims his right to send the email is in the first amendment which protects free speech. I think free speech is incredibly important and I think citizens should have their rights to free speech protected but there's some troubling implications if companies are protected as though they were individuals. In this instance the head of the company has used the resources and power of the company to push a specific agenda, this is not really in the spirit of the protection of people expressing their political views. Democracies have to protect themselves from anti-democratic forces and while I don't think this email is campaigning against democracy there's definitely a fine balance that has to be achieved with regards to the discourse of corporations. Corporations can wield substantial anti-democratic power in a way that individuals cannot as we have seen multiple times lately.
Specifically in a discussion thread about this email the following tweet by Expensify's CEO was made to explain the decisions making process at the company:
Before sending it we had a long discussion, designed to be as inclusive and respectful as possible. In particular, we made a #factcheck Slack room where anyone can contest a factual claim and argue for/against it, then a group of top employees votes on our official opinion.
On the surface of it this seems to not be so bad, but I do think this actually undermines democracy even when it is done well. Imagine that you have a very big company with a large number of employees and you have a situation where the company gets together and votes on some position that the employees are then pressured to follow. You can very quickly see a situation where a small group of people can start to wield far more power than would be acceptable under the one-person-one-vote ideal that much of democracy is built on. For example imagine a company where there's a group of 51% of the employees who decide to meet in private first to decide on issues then bring whatever decision that they had come up with privately to the larger group unanimously. In such a situation those individuals are wielding far more power than anyone not in that caucus.
In much the same way that people selling email addresses to political campaigns seems wildly inappropriate getting a first party email that was completely unsolicited also seemed inappropriate. If this were explicitly a political site or service, or boldly mentioned in the terms and conditions that political content would be sent to you via email if you signed up then it wouldn't seem quite so bad because the expectation would be there from the start that you were engaging in a political manner. But none of those expectations were there as Expensify is a service for financial tracking of business expenses. There's a matter of trust that you need to have in the service provider if your business is using the service. I feel like this email broke that trust, up until this point I had absolutely no qualms with suggesting Expensify to other people since the service really was quite good at what it did. But now I have these doubts about where the information will go, will the data stay private? Or will it all get fed into the all consuming political machine? The point is that I don't want to be asking myself these sorts of questions when using a service like this.
I also feel as though businesses should not be promoting this new hyper-partisan type of politics either. As naive as some may think this sounds I believe it should be the people of the electorate that decide an election, not corporate interests or other behind the scenes elites. As much as possible I think the government should stay out of the way of private enterprise, but in order for this to be feasible private enterprise must to not attempt to capture politics.
I know you don’t want to hear this from me. And I guarantee I don’t want to say it. But we are facing an unprecedented attack on the foundations of democracy itself. If you are a US citizen, anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy.
That’s right, I’m saying a vote for Trump, a vote for a third-party candidate, or simply not voting at all -- they’re all the same, and they all mean:
“I care more about my favorite issue than democracy. I believe Trump winning is more important than democracy. I am comfortable standing aside and allowing democracy to be methodically dismantled, in plain sight.”
If the polls are accurate, there’s a roughly 50% chance that you agree Trump needs to go. You know what to do: show up on November 3rd and vote for Biden. Or even better, don’t wait until then: vote today. Go to Vote.org if you need help figuring out how.
The rest of this email is intended to address the concerns of those who disagree, and I’ll try to take the most likely questions in turn: Q: Why do you care so much about democracy?
Democracy is core to our business success, in a variety of ways. Internally, we are a famously “flat” organization -- nobody reports to anyone else, and advancement is the result of meeting well defined criteria as judged by the vote of those who have already advanced. How we compensate each other is left up to a team vote as well. Even our external business model depends on individual employees “electing” to adopt Expensify as individuals, and then “campaigning” internally to get it adopted companywide. At every layer, democracy is our core competitive advantage -- both as a company, and as a nation. But that advantage is only as strong as the clarity of our rules and the fairness of their application. Any attempt to disrupt the rules or apply them unfairly is a direct threat to the strength of our company, and the strength of our nation. Q: What gives you the right to tell me what to do?
The first amendment. To be clear, you don’t need to listen. But the first amendment exists to encourage people like you and me to find some way to talk about the issues that matter, set aside our differences, and find a common ground on which to collectively govern 331 million citizens. Yes democratic self-rule can be inconvenient. But a burden of democracy is that this is literally our job, so I’m asking all of us to take it seriously. Q: But you’re a company, shouldn’t you remain neutral?
Expensify depends on a functioning society and economy; not many expense reports get filed during a civil war. As CEO of this business, it’s my job to plot a course through any storm -- and all evidence suggests that another 4 (or as Trump has hinted -- 8, or more?) years of Trump leadership will damage our democracy to such an extent, I’m obligated on behalf of shareholders to take any action I can to avoid it. I am confident our democracy (and Expensify) can survive a Biden presidency. I can’t say the same about Trump. It’s truly as simple as that. Q: Don’t you think you’re… exaggerating a bit?
I truly wish I was. I wouldn’t be sending this email if this election were just about “normal issues” -- taxes, legislative priorities, healthcare, etc. But it isn’t. This election is a referendum on what limits, if any, we place on our elected leaders to govern us in a fair and representative way. This election will decide if widespread voter suppression is an acceptable governing tactic. Q: Doesn’t everyone suppress votes?
Not like Trump. This is the most heavily litigated election in history, with over 300 lawsuits rushing through the courts before election day. And in every case, Biden is pushing to enable voters while Trump is pushing to suppress them. The trend couldn’t be more clear: Biden wants democracy, Trump does not. A vote for Trump is to endorse voter suppression, it really is very basic. This isn’t about party politics: if Biden were advocating for half of the voter suppression that Trump is actively doing, then I'd be fighting against Biden, too. This is bigger than politics as usual: this is about the very foundation of our nation. Q: Isn’t Trump just trying to prevent voter fraud?
Voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, as overwhelmingly shown by data showcased by the White House itself. That data comes from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank counting every single known case of voter fraud since 1948, which adds up to only 1,290 distinct votes over 78 years. In 2016 alone there were 138 million votes. There is just no credible argument that voter fraud is significant, even based on Trump’s own data. Q: Isn’t Biden just using more widespread voting to get elected?
Absolutely. This is the heart of the issue. Biden believes that enabling more people to vote will help him win. >Biden wins by promoting democracy; Trump wins by suppressing it. A vote for Biden is a vote for democracy. Q: So what if Trump gets elected by voter suppression, all’s fair right?
Well that’s what we’re going to decide, on November 3rd. Do you want your elected official to win based on the merits of their ideas? Or based on the ruthlessness of their voter suppression? And if you’re ok with “just a little suppression” -- where do you draw the line? Q: Why send me this when the polls say Biden is going to win?
The polls said Trump was going to lose last time, and he didn’t. But even if the polls can be trusted, that might still not be enough. Trump has stated repeatedly he will only honor an election that he personally feels is fair. So much depending on his personal judgement is worrying, because he has rejected the overwhelming expert consensus that voter fraud has been negligible historically, and has also said he believes it would be impossible to lose a fair election. Accordingly, the only way to ensure a peaceful transition of power is to ensure this election is an overwhelming, undeniable landslide in favor of Biden. Any excuse to question the election is an opportunity for Trump to refuse to leave the White House, plunging this country into a Constitutional crisis bordering on civil war. No matter how slight that risk might be, the consequences of it happening would be so catastrophic to society and the economy, we need to do all we can to prevent it.
So one final plea. As a fellow citizen, I fully support and respect your Constitutional right to disagree -- and as an avid supporter of democracy, I value that disagreement. Constructive, well-informed debate (hopefully using the most accurate, least biased news source available) is what makes this nation so exceptional.
But the Constitution is only as strong as the respect we give it. I’m asking you to cherish it close to your heart, and demand that those you elect do the same.
-david Founder and CEO of Expensify
PS: Agree or disagree? Reply to this email to share your thoughts with Concierge, or hit me up on Twitter @dbarrett to discuss!
PPS: Want to do even more? Support the National Popular Vote to make every vote count equally toward the presidential election, even if you aren’t in one of the 12 states deciding this election.
PPPS: Are you annoyed that you received this as a non-US citizen? If you're lucky enough to live in a democracy, then I'd encourage you to protect it and be willing to do uncomfortable things -- like emailing millions of customers -- to defend it.