Freedom ain’t free. But for many voters in the midterm elections, rides to the polls will be.
Numerous travel startups and public transit agencies will offer free or discounted trips to the polls on Election Day, providing turnout-boosting transportation assistance during an already high-profile midterm—and an experiment in how transportation and voting are linked. University of Florida professor and election scholar Michael McDonald believes voter participation this year could be at a rate “that most people have never experienced in their lives for a midterm election.”
“Transportation to the polls is often a challenge for many Americans on Election Day,” says Alex Youn, spokesperson for electric scooter company Lime. “So we felt we had an opportunity to help people make their voices heard and overcome a barrier that may have kept them from participating in the democratic process.”
The sheer number of transit startups investing in civic engagement on November 6 means many voters will have multiple options to get to their polling place next Tuesday. Lyft is providing half-off rides nationwide through a partnership with nonprofits working to encourage civic engagement, and will offer codes for free rides, via partner groups, to underserved communities.
Lime will give users free rides of up to 30 minutes across the company’s fleet of shared bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters. Zipcar will give users a $20 credit for renting a car on election night, between 6 and 10 p.m. Motivate, the national bike-share service recently purchased by Lyft, will also offer free trips in all the markets where it operates, including Citi Bike in New York and Jersey City, Divvy in Chicago, and Ford GoBike in the Bay Area. Skip scooters will give users a $5 credit.
Uber will offer $10 off a single ride via its most inexpensive options, usually the Pool shared-ride option, as well as a poll locator button in the app that will help route users to their polling place.
“We’ve never done a nationwide discounted or free ride to the polls before,” says Uber’s Matthew Wing.
In addition, cities and public transit agencies across the country will also offer free trips. Los Angeles Metro, which carries roughly 1.3 million passengers daily, will offer free rides on all bus routes and rail lines, a move expected to cost $600,000 in lost fares. Houston, Dallas, and Tampa transit agencies will also offer free rides, many just requiring a voter ID card before boarding.
All this adds up to an unprecedented experiment in free transit and turnout-boosting travel options. According to Rey Junco, a senior researcher at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, current data suggests the youth vote is especially engaged and excited in this election, perhaps voting in numbers that may rival a presidential election year.
He believes these free transit options can make a difference, especially for this age group.
“The statistician part of me can’t give you a good estimate,” he says, “but the general researcher in me says I wouldn’t be surprised if it had some impact, especially in closer races.”
America’s poor voting infrastructure
America’s voter participation problem—only 61.4 percent of U.S. adults participated in the 2016 presidential election—has many causes: a long history of racism and voter suppression, antiquated voting infrastructure and a lack of sufficient polling places, laws designed to discourage registration and participation. Emily Badger, writing for the New York Times, noted that in our democracy, there is “an increasingly partisan split over whether it should be a goal at all in America to get more people to vote.”
Can better transportation help increase turnout? While Junco says he hasn’t come across specific studies specifically analyzing how free transportation would change voting behavior, it’s sensible to assume that a free trip to the polls can make a difference, since lack of transit has repeatedly been cited as a challenge.
According to a 2016 “Survey of the Performance of American Elections” by Harvard, 14 percent of non-voters said they didn’t vote in 2016 because they couldn’t find a ride to their polling place, and a recent Pew study found that just 50 percent of voters under the age of 30 said that the voting process was easy. A CIRCLE analysis of the 2016 election found that transportation kept roughly 15 million voters from the polls in 2016, with 29 percent of all youth aged 18 to 29 citing transit as a reason why they didn’t vote—15 percent called it a “major factor.”
Other barriers, such as having to take off work and vote on a weekday, or having to wait in long lines due to a limited number of polling places, may present larger barriers. And, for perspective, 65 percent of youth surveyed listed “didn’t like candidates/issues” as their biggest barrier.
But there’s no question poor transit access depressed turnout, especially across socioeconomic and racial lines. CIRCLE’s analysis found that youth of color were more likely to list transportation as a voting deterrent (39 percent versus 27 percent for white voters). Youth without college degrees also said transportation was a bigger factor compared to their college educated peers (35 percent versus 19 percent).
The free rider solution?
Representatives from Uber, Lime, and Lyft, who are all running nonpartisan programs aimed at encouraging overall turnout, have not noticed campaigns making these free trips a central part of their get-out-the-vote operations. That said, Uber also introduced a feature allowing organizations and campaigns to generate promo codes to send out to followers.
Spokespeople from transit companies participating in Election Day promotions all say they can only make rough guesses about how many people will participate. That makes Junco especially interested in seeing the post-election data to get a sense of how the programs were utilized and who took advantage.
It goes to follow that any program that makes participation easier or more affordable can make a difference.
“We don’t know what difference a 10-minute ride makes, but it speaks to a basic thing we see over and over: Voting is an access issue,” Junco says.