Last fall, Google gathered leaders of its employee resource groups for a meeting to discuss its policies on political activity. While the company has always prohibited employees from engaging in partisan political activity at work, it had allowed groups like the Black Googler Network to organize nonpartisan voter registration drives.
But as the presidential primary was underway, Google told the staffers gathered at the meeting that it would be putting a stop to that. Google employees, including employee resource groups, would no longer be able to participate in or organize voter registration events, unless they did so in their personal capacity.
Vanessa Williams, a Google product marketing manager who was at the meeting and described it to Protocol, had participated in one of the Black Googler Network voter registration drives in the past. As the only representative of the group at the meeting, Williams said she felt the need to speak up. "One thing I had to flag to the group was there's a specific historical context the Black community was coming from," Williams said. "That type of [rule] is kind of a big deal."
A Google spokesperson confirmed the company made the policy change at the beginning of the year and briefed the company-funded employee resource groups on the change last fall. The spokesperson said the change was an effort to "streamline" the company's policies in response to questions from employees on the type of political activity they could or couldn't engage in. "There are long-standing laws that limit corporate support for political activity, and that encompasses a number of things, including registering to vote," the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson declined to specify any examples of laws preventing employees from participating in nonpartisan voting drives, saying that "campaign finance laws are complex and factually dependent."
Google's policy on political activism generally states that if employees want to participate in political advocacy, it has to happen on their own time, with their own resources, and in their own voice, not the company's. In the past, though, Google did allow groups of employees to participate in voter registration drives, as long as they did so in a nonpartisan way, in partnership with a 501(c)(3) organization and in a way that complied with laws, which vary state-to-state.
On one trip, Williams and other members of the Black Googler Network registered voters in a Black neighborhood in Maryland. While she was there, Williams says she helped educate a man with a felony record about a new law in the state that finally would allow him to vote, a moment that stuck with her.
"It was really great to be able to experience that," she said.
Google's decision to change the policy disappointed Williams, who left the company for a new job in January. It struck her as an attempt by Google to project political neutrality at a time when the company was, Williams says, "being pulled to the left and the right to do things or not do things."
Indeed, shortly before the meeting, Google issued new community guidelines, discouraging employees from discussing politics on internal forums. "While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not," the guidelines read. The new rules followed years of infighting among Google employees, over topics including Google's defense contracts as well as a 2017 memo accusing the company of being an "ideological echo chamber." Amid employee uprisings, Google cut its contract with the Department of Defense and fired the author of the memo, spurring widespread backlash among conservatives.
According to Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, there are no federal laws prohibiting corporations from engaging in nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Companies are prohibited from directly contributing money or in-kind donations to campaigns. And they can only run ads expressly advocating for or against a candidate if it's an independent expenditure and reported to the Federal Election Commission. But nonpartisan activities aren't covered by those restrictions.
"It seems like a stretch to say a genuinely nonpartisan voter registration or get-out-the-vote activity would put Google in the position of violating campaign finance law," Fischer says.
Individual states do have their own laws governing voter registration drives. In some states, lawmakers have deliberately sought to make it more difficult to organize voter registration events, arguing that they're rife with fraud. But Fischer said he's not aware of any state laws that would prohibit corporations from engaging in nonpartisan activities.
Tech companies, including Google, have aggressively promoted voter registration in the past. In both 2016 and 2018, Google incorporated registration reminders in its Google Doodle months before Election Day. This year, Facebook has set a goal of registering 4 million voters.
It's unclear how Facebook handles this with their employees. Its guidelines say employees must keep political activities "separate from work." Asked how that policy would apply to nonpartisan voter registration, a Facebook spokesperson sent Protocol a link to the policy.
Twitter spokesperson Nick Pacilio, meanwhile, said the company has no rules prohibiting employees or groups of employees from registering voters.
The Google spokesperson wouldn't say why the company's corporate voter registration initiatives are more legally sound than employees' efforts, except to say it's simply more difficult to track smaller-scale events among employees to ensure they're staying on the right side of state and federal laws. "If you think about the number of employees that we have, and the fact that 10 employees here and 10 employees there can all create their own individual efforts, that becomes a little more messy than if we just have really clear guidelines on how we contribute as a company," the spokesperson said.