Instead of voter suppression, these companies and transit agencies are engaged in voter support. They want to make access to the polls easier on Election Day.
You registered to vote, you researched the candidates, and now all you want to do is cast your ballot and wear that oval “I Voted’ sticker with pride. But where’s your polling place, and how do you get there? In one survey, 14 percent of nonvoters (people who were registered to vote but didn’t) cited transportation as a major barrier to getting to the polls. For nonvoters under 30 years old, the number balloons to 29 percent. In order to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can do so, transportation companies across the U.S. are announcing promotion after promotion to help get people to the polls for next Tuesday’s midterms.
Public transit agencies in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Houston are offering free metro or bus rides to and from the polls. Lyft is offering 50 percent off rides, while Uber is offering a $10 discount, but available only on the most affordable option (eg. a POOL instead of an UberX). Both rideshare companies are only discounting rides to polling places, not a roundtrip.
Lyft is also partnering with a handful of nonpartisan non-profits, like the National Federation of the Blind, Student Vets of America, and Voto Latino, to offer free rides to underserved communities of their choosing. After the only polling place in Dodge City, Kansas, was moved outside of the city, more than a mile from public transportation, Voto Latino, a Latino advocacy organization, chose to dedicate it rides within the town, which is 60 percent Hispanic. Voto Latino is pushing fundraising efforts to help cover the costs.
"Historically, campaigns and politicians don't reach out to the Latino community as much. But this community just doesn't have the same access and information that a lot of other folks do,” said Jessica Reeves, chief operating officer of Voto Latino. “We were lucky enough to work with Lyft in 2016; this year, we were of course thrilled to continue that partnership."
Last week both Uber and Lyft’s promotions were unavailable in Utah; the state elections office was investigating if the offers violated state code, which forbids residents to “pay, loan, or contribute any money… to induce a voter to go to the polls or remain away from the polls.” But this week, Utah’s director of elections Justin Lee confirmed to CityLab that “after having done our due diligence, we don't see any reason that Uber or Lyft cannot offer this service,” and updates were reflected on both companies’ websites later that day.
The bike- and scooter- share company Lime is offering a free 30-minute ride on election day to help people get to and from the polls. And Motivate, the bike-share company that operates systems like Citi Bike in New York, is also offering free rides next Tuesday. Cyclists can use a special code in New York, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, the Bay Area, Washington, D.C, and Columbus, Ohio, to access a free day pass. In Portland, Oregon, the company is offering 30 minutes of free ride time instead.
Even though there are myriad ways to get to the polls for free or via discounted transportation next Tuesday, it’s all for naught if you can’t leave work. There’s no federal law that requires employers to allow their workers paid time off to vote, but many states have some form of protection, often in the form of a few hours off at the beginning or end of a work shift. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders attempted in 2014 to make Election Day a national holiday, but to no avail. Instead, companies are taking matters into their own hands.
Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia announced earlier this summer that it’s closing up shop on Election Day, both corporate offices and retail stores across the country. In September, it announced a wider Time to Vote Campaign, in which over 370 companies, like Walmart, Kaiser, and Paypal, have pledged to commit to make it easier for their employees to vote. Some are offering paid time off, like fast casual restaurant chain Cava, others are promising a day without meetings, or providing resources for early voting and mail-in ballots.
Patagonia got specific last year by releasing “The President Stole Your Land,” a statement against President Trump’s move to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah by nearly 2 million acres. But the Time to Vote Campaign is nonpartisan; spokesperson Corley Kenna said she “wouldn’t describe [Patagonia] as political.” The brand is more focused on its overall mission towards environmental advocacy, and less on strict politics and parties.
“Since 2004, we’ve had some kind of election day campaign,” said Kenna. “We definitely want our community, when they fill out their ballot, to think about the planet and make sure they know where the candidates stand on environmental issues."
Independently, Seattle tech startup Outreach is creating its own office holiday. Work is optional next Tuesday, dubbed “Democracy Day” by its CEO Manny Medina. An immigrant from Ecuador, Medina was inspired by his home country, where election day is a national holiday and “families get together, they argue about things, neighbors are on the street and talking to each other. It becomes this very big communal event.”
For employees who do come to work next Tuesday, they’ll enjoy food, drinks, political discussions, and TVs streaming live election results. Medina invited a local elected official and other politically-involved movers and shakers in the area to get the conversation flowing, and encouraged employees to bring their family and friends too.
"With the sentiment flowing high around the current political climate in the U.S., this is a great way to get meaningful conversations going between coworkers that may or may not agree on issues,” he said. “Come eat, celebrate, listen to important things, and have your opinion heard. Educate and be educated.”