Aditya Agarwal, the newly promoted chief technology officer of Dropbox, the cloud storage company, will vote in his first U.S. election on Nov. 8. Though he’s worked for U.S. tech companies for years, it hasn’t been easy to stay abreast of the paperwork he needed to get visas and become a citizen.
“Over the course of being in the United States for the last 16 years, I have had an F-1 [student] visa, an OPT, a CPT,” he said. “I’ve had, like, four H-1Bs [a visa used for high-skilled workers, often in the technology industry]. I’ve had, like, a green-card process that took like five or six years. I’ve gone through the citizenship process.”
The process is “deeply personal for me,” he said, speaking as a newly minted American citizen about to cast a ballot, “so I’m really excited about it.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Agarwal is one of 1.8 million people nationwide employed in “computer systems design and related services,” out of 17 million employed in high-tech industries. It’s difficult to track this group’s voting behavior1, but looking at campaign donations, endorsements and other political speech offers a way to understand the political impact of this key demographic. The tech industry’s role in disseminating political information through the internet gives it an outsize voice in the process; last week, for example, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook debated whether to remove some Trump posts as hate speech.
Data compiled by Crowdpac, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign donations, shows that employees at technology companies are donating overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton. Of the $8.1 million given by tech employees or executives, Clinton got 95 percent, or $7.7 million; Donald Trump got 4 percent, or $299,000; Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, each got less than 1 percent.
Similarly, in the Silicon Valley area, nearly 99 percent of the political donations went to Clinton, and 1 percent to Trump, according to Crowdpac.
Agarwal and his wife, Ruchi Sanghvi, a software engineer, both went to work at Facebook a year after they graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2004. (Sanghvi was the first female engineer hired by Facebook, and is now serving on corporate boards and overseeing a co-working space for entrepreneurs.) They are not just new naturalized citizens eager to vote; they are also are prominent supporters of FWD.us, a bipartisan, nonprofit lobbying group for technology industry interests. The 3-year-old group has put its energy this year behind lobbying for immigration reform, and championing the interests of H-1B visa holders as well as undocumented immigrants.
Agarwal says that lack of support for the country’s 11 million undocumented people — who are nonetheless wanted here for economic reasons — is “just morally unacceptable.” Todd Schulte, FWD’s president, said that what the group “is fighting for is an economy that doesn’t deny people opportunity and access to succeed based on a broken immigration system.” Agarwal is voting for Clinton, and according to the Federal Election Commission’s reports, he gave the maximum $2,700 individual contribution to the Clinton campaign.
But not everyone in the technology industry feels the same way. Brad Lea, the chief executive of LightSpeed VT, which provides virtual training to large companies, is a supporter of Trump and of stricter immigration laws. He said that most of the technology industry leaders he knows personally support Trump “because he is not a politician…. He’s a businessman who knows how to negotiate.” Lea said his top issue is ending what he sees as widespread cronyism and corruption among career politicians. “When Trump gets up there and complains about the corruption and backward dealings and unfairness, that’s why I connect,” he said. “Hillary — it seems like she is 100 percent lying and making backroom deals.”
Lea is not a political donor, but remains influential as a social media maven and viral video producer with more than 59,000 Facebook likes and 69,000 Twitter followers. Like Lea, many technology executives — the new railroad barons of American industry — have a wide audience for their political views, from the speech by the billionaire founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, at the Republican National Convention to the endorsements for Clinton by several other billionaires, including Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn and an investor at Greylock Partners.
The Silicon Valley region and greater Bay Area, home to so many big technology companies, are also rich soil for reaping political donations.
Ben Casnocha, an author of business books and a technology entrepreneur, said that while many technology companies have shared policy interests, they don’t yet see themselves as a political cohort, which “makes it quite hard to organize them in any sort of politically effective way.”
“Until just a few years ago, the perspective in Silicon Valley was to have nothing to do with Washington,” he said. “It’s only in the last few years that tech companies have really established a significant lobbying presence in Washington.”
Becky Tallent, the head of U.S. government relations for Dropbox and a former immigration assistant to former House Speaker John Boehner, also sees technology’s relationship to government as just starting to grow.
“There is a generational gap between the people who are running our government right now and the people who are using the technology and creating the technology,” she said.
The big political concerns for the tech industry this election cycle include trade and the status of high-tech H-1B visas. In 2015, the U.S. exported nearly $205 billion worth of computer and electronic products, constituting 13.6 percent of total U.S. exports, the second-largest category of exports. That’s why many tech executives have been alarmed by Trump’s opposition to free trade and trade agreements. Clinton now opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership but is much more supportive of free trade than Trump is. In addition, Clinton wants to continue the H-1B visa program, while Trump has criticized it and said he will severely limit it. The program is designed to supply workers in specialty fields when Americans are in short supply, though one pending lawsuit alleges it has been used improperly, with Americans training their cheaper replacements.2
The H-1B program, along with various post-student work visas, have been gateways into American entrepreneurship for some of America’s biggest tech companies. A 2016 report by the National Foundation for American Policy, a business-oriented research group that supports immigration, found that more than half of America’s billion-dollar startups were founded or co-founded by immigrants.
Agarwal believes a “rebel-nation streak” among technology industry founders led many to avoid dealing with government and politics. But now companies such as Facebook, where he was one of the first 20 employees, are maturing, and so is their relationship to politics. That relationship will become more important as high-tech companies create products and algorithms that are embedded in virtually every industry.
“Really, every company in the future,” he said, “is going to be some kind of tech company.”