I have been a Microsoft employee for over two decades now. I take pride in our public commitment to values that improve the lives of our employees and communities, not just profit the company. Unfortunately, the actions of the Microsoft Political Action Committee (MSPAC) often betray those values. After the shocking attack on our democracy on January 6th, I am proposing a meaningful change to how the PAC operates. We can remove the conflicts with our values while honoring the diverse political beliefs of our employees. The change I propose would make Microsoft a true leader in the world of corporate politics.
I propose that Microsoft lobby for democracy itself.
First, we must address Microsoft’s contributions to the unprecedented events of last week.
While I am not currently aware of any Microsoft employees who participated in the violent attack on the Capitol that left five dead, the company itself played an indirect role by supporting the election of numerous Congresspeople who stood up and voted to overturn the results of a free and fair election — the exact result the lawless mob was seeking to enforce with violence.
The support Microsoft gave was financial, via MSPAC. During the 2019–2020 campaign season, MSPAC funded at least 60 of the 147 members of Congress who voted for sedition by attempting to throw out millions of validly cast votes across our country:
In addition to directly funding the campaigns of those 57 legislators, Microsoft also directed money to the Leadership PACs associated with Senators Rick Scott, John Kennedy, and Josh Hawley — all prominent leaders in the seditious attempt to overturn the results of the election on the Senate floor.
Microsoft’s role as a public leader
For years, Microsoft has asserted its leadership in solving many problems that confront our industry and society. To Microsoft’s credit, often these solutions are not just about selling technology — they demonstrate how technology can help achieve larger social goals. Often, these initiatives are driven by passionate employees who are concerned about our shared future. They turn that drive into action by using Microsoft’s resources and influence to make our world better for future generations.
Here are some very public examples where the company has stepped to the forefront in shaping corporate social engagement:
- Early in the pandemic, Microsoft committed to paying its 4,500 hourly workers their normal wages after most work had been suspended. While providing no direct economic benefit to the company, Microsoft demonstrated how to address the societal and economic impact of a world-changing event.
- Microsoft created an extensive set of principles on how to use AI ethically and responsibly.
- Microsoft set aggressive environmental goals to make the company carbon negative by 2030 — a gargantuan task when operating millions of computers around the world.
When it comes to political giving, however, Microsoft is just another company in the long line of suitors hoping for a few minutes of a senator’s time. There is nothing noble or remarkable in this. Instead, Microsoft’s name gets dragged through the mud by being attached to politicians who pass laws that harm many of our employees and their loved ones: Women, LGBTQIA+ people, immigrants, and peoples of color from all around the world. Thousands of vulnerable employees must grapple with the reality that while Microsoft tells them it values their existence and contributions, MSPAC provides concrete financial support to politicians who do not.
True corporate leadership in a democracy
Microsoft is uniquely positioned to make a defining difference in how corporate political giving works in the 21st century. Now is our opportunity to assert leadership. Instead of struggling with how to best influence politicians without violating our values, we can take a different path. I reiterate:
Microsoft should lobby on behalf of democracy itself.
Instead of lobbying for policies in which the company has direct financial interest, MSPAC should solely fund campaign finance reform. It would do this by supporting only those organizations and initiatives seeking to reform campaign finance laws across the country. Microsoft would be the first major influential corporation to shift to this political strategy, putting it in a clear position of leadership. Not only would this act remove the major conflict with Microsoft’s stated values, it would build goodwill with citizens across the country and demonstrate the power of corporate social engagement.
This is not some pie-in-the-sky idealism. Now more than ever, respected organizations like the ACLU, the Campaign Finance Institute, and Campaign Legal Center are focused on issues of campaign fairness. Microsoft would be a powerful corporate champion for these kinds of civic-oriented organizations, and become a model of how companies can advance the interests of all citizens.
A concrete example of a successful campaign finance reform program exists in our metaphorical back yard. In 2015 Seattle voters approved the nation’s first Democracy Voucher program. Seattle residents receive four $25 vouchers that can be given to participating candidates, which are then redeemed for money. The first election under the voucher program in 2017 saw 84% of donors participating in campaign donations for the first time, and 71% of those used the vouchers. The subsequent election in 2019 saw the number of residents participating nearly double. Helping municipalities and states improve the quality of their representation to match their citizenry can only improve a representative democracy that is currently suffering mightily under the weight of gerrymandering and undue financial influence.
MSPAC can have a far-ranging impact on our society if it has the courage to lead.
A CALL TO ACTION: Microsoft needs to take its role in the current political climate seriously, and pledge to make meaningful changes to how it contributes to the political process. These are necessary reforms:
- Microsoft must pledge to never again support any of the legislators who voted to overthrow the results of the election of 2020, or future legislators that supported their actions. This includes indirect support, such as other PACs or political groups that support said legislators.
- MSPAC must stop directly contributing to candidates and lawmakers. Financial support should only flow to organizations and initiatives that are attempting to reform the role of money in our political process.
- If it cannot abide by BOTH of those requirements, Microsoft should shut down the PAC and ask employees to engage in the political process on their own time and according to their own conscience.
There is no compromise middle ground. There have been multiple occasions in the past several years where employees have expressed pain and dismay at the results of Microsoft’s lobbying. PAC leadership promised to reform how political giving worked at Microsoft. Now in the year 2021 we have blood on our hands and seditious politicians in our pocket — all because leadership refused to act and remove the company from the political process. It must end.
Fellow Microsoft employees, talk to your leaders about the MSPAC, how it reflects on them as leaders, and on Microsoft as an employer. Let them know there are other ways for Microsoft to lead publicly. Ask them to address these proposals head-on and engage in their merits. Make it clear that you love and respect the company, but that it is failing America by being party to a system designed to value corporate money more than the rights and needs of individual citizens. Join the open PAC town halls and make your voice and displeasure heard, and do not let anyone tell you “this is the way it has to be.” There are other options if we choose to be bold and take the path less traveled.
Do not be silent.
Below are some additional thoughts, resources, data, and attempts to address a couple of objections I expect to hear.
Why does Microsoft need a PAC?
The short answer: We don’t.
The “official” answer: Lobbying results in policies that benefit Microsoft and its shareholders, allowing us to help shape the direction of the country by participating in the political process.
The UNOFFICIAL answer: Sit down to talk about this topic with senior folks who know how political sausages are made, and the conversation will inevitably end up at some version of this explanation: “If we don’t spend money on politicians, our competitors will, and we will be at a severe disadvantage.” Bingo.
Now, I fully acknowledge the realpolitik of that answer: In our current political system and environment, they are correct. The inevitable result of allowing your competitors to lobby unopposed is to have legislation go in their favor instead of yours. What we should NOT accept is that the world exists in a binary, and these are the only two choices.
Many companies simply stay out of the political giving market, sometimes encouraging employees to give on their own. Apple is a prime example of an exceptionally large, extremely successful corporation that does not operate a PAC. Microsoft itself spent the first half of its existence without one and still became one of the most powerful companies in the world in less than 25 years. We can survive without one again.
Common objections to changing the status quo
The events of the last week are the ultimate demonstration that self-abrogation is hard for those with power and influence, and few do it willingly when not forced to by law or tradition. While anyone involved in directing and operating MSPAC would blanch at that comparison, the reality is that past efforts to reform the PAC have only resulted in cosmetic changes that they hope will quiet the dissent.
Examples of objections I expect, and my responses:
“That’s a great idea, but it would take time, and during that time our competitors would gain a critical upper hand.”
Leadership is hard. Striking a new path is hard. When it comes to technology, Microsoft has never been afraid to take risks, even at great short term financial costs, when it believes the long-term gain is worthwhile.
“My preferred political party is X. This plan sounds like it would disadvantage my party.”
Nothing about this proposal applies unfairly to one party or the other. The goal is to increase the influence of individual citizens across the county, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. It does this by not forcing them to compete with the massive resources that are available to corporations. American democracy is built on the principle of “One Person, One Vote.” Not, “One Dollar, One Vote.”
“Some of this seems pretty vague. Couldn’t someone propose campaign finance reform that actually hurts citizen representation?”
This piece is not a detailed policy, but a foundation upon which a policy can built. To build an effective policy that advances the cause of voters’ rights and citizen participation in government, experts like Harvard Law’s Larry Lessig, and organizations like the ones I linked above, could be consulted.
All of the data I’ve used in writing this is from either the Open Secrets Project or the Federal Election Commission. Contributions to, and disbursements from, PACs are all documented and are part of the public record, including donor names, roles, amounts, and more. I do want to highlight one bit of data about how MSPAC gets its sizeable budget:
More than 30% of all funding of the PAC comes from less than 1% of the nearly 170,000 employees at Microsoft: people in senior leadership roles across the company, with titles like General Manager, Director, Partner, and higher.
Even more damning, more than HALF of that 30% was contributed by leaders holding titles of Vice President and above. Fifteen percent may not sound like much, but this disproportionate impact on MSPAC’s funding comes from just a few hundred people.
Because Satya and the senior leadership team spend so much time emphasizing how Microsoft values its employees, it is disconcerting to watch those same leaders routinely fund politicians who actively legislate against the very rights and existence of many of our fellow employees. I suggest you take the time to check out the FEC site to see if your leaders actively give to the PAC, and ask them to explain how they reconcile their statements about diversity and inclusion at Microsoft with giving money to those who oppose those same values.
I continue to be grateful to Microsoft for providing employees with an environment where constructive dissent is not only tolerated, but taken seriously and can effect change. Now is the opportunity to create that change. Not just at Microsoft, but in the world we live in. Tell leadership how you feel, what your ideas are. Do not accept the status quo.