This week, early voting took place in Austin for Proposition One, a ballot measure that could determine whether Uber and Lyft continue to operate in the city. And we all know what happens when pesky rules stand in Uber and Lyft's way: they go to war.
And as the vote drew closer, the battle tactics became increasingly aggressive.
This week, Uber began texting its riders, urging them to get out the vote.
And Lyft began offering customers free rides.
Voters who clicked on the pink "Go Vote" button were redirected to the website of “Ridesharing Works for Austin,” the PAC funded by Uber and Lyft, where they could read about why they should vote in favor of Prop 1, as well as plug in their address to find the closest place to do so.
For some, this raised the question of whether all those free rides are really ethical, or perhaps even legal. After all, the Texas Penal Code makes it it illegal to accept any “benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision, opinion, recommendation [or] vote."
“To me, it doesn’t pass the smell test,” former City Council Member Laura Morrison, told the Austin Monitor, acting as spokeswoman for an anti-Prop 1 PAC. Offering rides to the polls, she acknowledged, is a common political practice, but those rides aren't usually offered by parties with something financial at stake.
Uber and Lyft have been operating legally in Austin since 2014, but the City Council passed an ordinance last December requiring all drivers to get fingerprint background checks, just like the city's cab drivers do. Uber and Lyft argue that this is both infeasible and unnecessary. If Prop 1, which would overturn the city ordinance, does not pass, both companies vow to leave the city completely. The official vote takes place on May 7, but early voting has already drawn a huge turnout.
In most cities, Uber and Lyft have crushed their political opponents. New York suddenly abandoned plans to cap the number of ride-hailing vehicles after an aggressive campaign against Mayor Bill de Blasio. San Antonio backtracked on regulations requiring fingerprinting after Uber and Lyft left.
Uber has offered rides to the polls in Texas before, though not when the ballot measure in question was one that would directly impact the company.
The tactic is in a gray area. A free ride isn't quite the same thing as a bribe—you can, after all, hail a ride to the polls and cast a vote against Prop 1, as many annoyed users promised to do. (Some riders also said they reported Uber to the FCC, for so-called robocalling.)
But while politicians might employ the same strategy, the power that Uber and Lyft have to mobilize its users to do their bidding is enormously magnified: they can easily reach voters where they already are—on their phones—and seamlessly move them to action with a click of an in-app button. It's the same tactic Airbnb used to swiftly defeat Prop F in San Francisco.
With access to every local user's phone number and email address, Uber and Lyft have been able to bombard users with reminders about what's at stake in this vote, much more effectively than City Council members have. Vote for Prop 1, they urge, or it will be harder for you to get around. Consider the reach of Prop 1's opposition group, by contrast, which has raised just over $100,000 and has neither the funding nor means to reach voters with free on-demand rides and in-app ads.
Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin told the Austin Monitor that this power is something "materially different and new."
We grew to love these apps because they let us easily hail a ride. But now the tables have turned and the apps are hailing us for votes.