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Austin’s Prop 1 Vote Has Big Implications Around The State—And Around The Country

What the battle over who writes regulations for Uber and Lyft in Austin tells us about the future of ridesharing and how much votes cost.

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Late last week, reporters for the Austin American-Statesman and KUT reported some of the numbers in the battle over Austin’s Proposition 1 special election, the vote that will determine the fate of the city’s regulations surrounding ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. According to the Statesman, the total expenditures by Ridesharing Works For Austin, the political action committee funded entirely by Uber and Lyft, have risen to a whopping $8,100,000.

That money has gone to a lot of things: a near-constant blanketing of ads on the airwaves, a forest’s worth of direct mail, and salaries to folks including former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell (who’ll make $50,000 for roughly a month’s worth of work endorsing the campaign) and former candidate for state representative Huey Rey Fischer (whose paycheck here is worth $12,000).

So even if Lyft and Uber’s efforts to overturn the regulations may have caused problems for those in municipal government, it’s been a boon for printing companies, the USPS, local media outlets facing dwindling ad revenue, and various gently used political figures. If Uber and Lyft wanted to boast about their economic impact, well, they could do worse than pointing to their expenditures as they fight the campaign to keep the city of Austin from requiring their drivers to be fingerprinted.

Let’s put that figure in context. Not only is $8.1 million nearly seven times the most expensive municipal election in Austin’s history—the 2014 campaign of Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who set a new benchmark in political spending just two years ago—but it’s also over a million dollars more than Ted Cruz spent in his 2012 Senate campaign to beat then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. This is where we are with Prop 1, a municipal election about a very narrowly tailored piece of the city code that applies strictly to ridesharing services is costing more than a successful U.S. Senate campaign.

That is, er, friggin’ crazy, but it also helps reveal the stakes here. That money could certainly pay for a whole lot of fingerprint background checks that Uber and Lyft say are such an onerous burden (202,500 of them, to be exact, at $40 a pop), but it’s not really about whether fingerprinting is too expensive of a process to keep Uber and Lyft profitable. The campaign, ultimately, is a matter of principle for the companies—and they’re not just spending the money to win in Austin, they’re spending the money to show other cities considering similar regulations that they’re in it to win it.

The “yes on Prop 1” forces—that is, the Uber and Lyft side of the battle—have outspent their opponents at a rate of 81:1. (That crushes the argument that the regulations were initially passed by city council as the result of campaign contributions from the taxi lobby—if Austin’s city council was bought and paid for for a few grand, Uber and Lyft clearly slept on a great chance for bargain shopping.) That’s a huge amount for an election in Austin, but it could be worth it to send a message to Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, Denver, and other cities contemplating a fingerprinting requirement that this isn’t a fight worth picking.

The fact that the fight over Prop 1 isn’t strictly about Austin is clear in other ways too. Opponents of the recall campaign note that, when fingerprinting requirements went into effect in Houston, Uber continued to operate in that city. So if they didn’t follow through in Houston, why would Austin be any different? That argument is harder to make now than it was just a week ago: Uber announced on Wednesday that it was considering leaving Houston if the fingerprint regulations there aren’t overturned. That threat comes without a specific timetable, but the timing of the announcement—just as the “Uber will leave Austin if the regulation passes” argument needed some more urgency—suggests that the strategy here is a lot more than local.

All of that is fascinating, but ultimately, the expenditures, lobbying, messaging, and gamesmanship at work here are only part of the puzzle. Is all of this enough to get people to actually vote?

The turnout for municipal special elections isn’t usually great. That’s an understatement, actually—in December 2014, the special runoff election to determine the city’s mayor and much of its city council saw just 15.58 percent of registered voters actually show up to cast ballots. It’s downright dismal. (In elections with more on the ballot—like the general election in November 2014, in which voters cast ballots in those races, as well as in campaigns like the gubernatorial race between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis, the turnout hovered around 40 percent.) The most recent election—March’s primary election, which gave voters the chance to cast votes for the likes of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, or Hillary Clinton—brought out around 34 percent of eligible voters.

So most people don’t vote, and almost nobody votes in municipal special elections. That’s both an opportunity and a problem for the ridesharing companies. A look at the endorsements in the campaign suggest that, if just the usual voters turn out, Prop 1 is in bad shape. That means that the campaign isn’t just a referendum on ridesharing and regulatory framework—it’s also a test case for how much money it takes to turn non-voters into voters. That’s useful information, regardless of how you feel about Prop 1.

So far, the early voting returns suggest that the answer to that question might well be “$8.1 million.” The fact that most of the usual political machinery in Austin has rejected Prop 1 tells us that Uber and Lyft need a higher-than-normal turnout to pull off the campaign—they can’t count on people who read the endorsements in the Statesman or Austin Chronicle, or who take their cues from the Travis County Democrats or Austin Neighborhoods Council. And so far, it looks like they’re getting that turnout.

Early voting opened last Monday, and so far the results have been impressive: 30,312 voters have cast ballots in the first seven days of voting, an average of 4,330 per day. That’s an average 875 more voters per day than the last special municipal election in Austin, the December 2014 runoff for mayor and city council.

Now, we don’t know which way all of those people are voting, obviously, but any increase in turnout is probably favorable for Uber and Lyft. They didn’t spend that money to get people to stay home, anyway. Prop 1 has been highly competitive, and passions on both sides are inflamed, which may account for some of the early turnout, but Austinites were also passionate about Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders ahead of Super Tuesday, and 10,000 fewer people voted in the first seven days of that election. (One thing worth noting is that, while the first six days of early voting featured a significantly higher turnout than either the March primaries or the 2014 runoffs, the totals from Sunday, May 1, were almost identical to the total from the first Sunday in the March primary—1,607 voted on May 1, and 1,602 voted on Sunday the week before Super Tuesday—which may suggest that things are slowing down.)

Regardless, it’s obviously way too early to know exactly what all of this means for the outcome of Prop 1—but it does tell us that, if you want to get voters to care so deeply about a local municipal ordinance special election that they rush out to the polls in unprecedented force, you’ll have to pay for it. Somewhere in the neighborhood, apparently, of $8.1 million.

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  • adam Campos

    Vote No!!!!!

    • Bernie Estrada

      Vote Yes!!! It’s the smart thing to do for this city. People love to travel using Uber or Lyft. It’s good for our economy and it provides jobs for people. So please vote for Prop 1.

      • Jed

        how much were you paid to write that?

        • Bernie Estrada

          What does it matter to you? What gives the right for anyone here to write comments opposing Prop 1? The point is we live in a free society. You or anyone else can comment how you please. That’s your prerogative. Stay out of mine.

        • Bernie Estrada

          how much were you paid to write that?

          • Jed

            you could answer the question.

          • Bernie Estrada

            How about you? Who is paying you? You tell me first since you brought it up. And please be specific.

          • Jed

            no one. at all.

            your turn.

          • Bernie Estrada

            Don’t be an infant. I don’t have time for infantile conversations. Either rise up to the level, or forget.

          • Jed

            i’ll take that as an admission.

          • Kapila

            Will do boss. As much as this can be construed as a referendum on the existence of ride-sharing in Austin. It’s not, cause there will be ride-sharing in Austin regardless of the passage of this proposal. This is about corporate interests doing an end-run around city government and using a low turnout vote to maximize their dollar spend on the outcome. This issue was well considered and decided by elected officials in December. If Lyft or Uber or whomever would have taken that opportunity to start compliance then they’d have already retooled to accommodate by now and probably for considerably less than 8 figures.

        • Realist50

          I wasn’t paid anything, and I voted “Yes”.

          • Jed

            you sold yourself short.

      • Kapila

        Doubtful that companies like Lyft/Uber will permanently leave a city like Austin. If they do, then another ride-sharing company will pop up that is willing to comply with city ordinance to do fingerprint-based background checks on their drivers.