AUSTIN—When you open the Uber app here, the first thing that pops up isn’t a map to call a car. Instead, a political ad fills the screen.
“Vote for Prop 1 on May 7,” the message declares. “Ridesharing is on the ballot in Austin, and we need your voice to be heard at the polls.”
For Uber riders, Austin's typically sleepy local politics have become impossible to ignore. Uber and Lyft are spending millions of dollars on a political fight for the future of ridesharing in one of the fastest growing cities in the country.
The tech companies have spent more than $2.2 million so far to convince Austin voters to shoot down a law requiring ridesharing drivers to receive fingerprint background checks. Locals will vote May 7 on an ordinance written by Uber and Lyft that would not mandate fingerprinting. It's an election that could influence the path of similar regulations around the country.
While Uber and Lyft have been operating legally in the city since 2014, the City Council passed an ordinance last December mandating that all ridesharing drivers go through fingerprint background checks, just like cab drivers do here. Houston and New York City also require fingerprinting. The companies say fingerprinting drivers is infeasible and unnecessary, and brought the issue to the voters, launching a ballot initiative campaign for their own ordinance. They vow to pull out of Austin completely if voters don't approve their version of the law.
Now, the pro-ridesharing campaign is staking the entire future of ridesharing in Austin on the result of the election. "Please don’t take Uber away,” a blind woman says in one ad paid for by the company. Meanwhile, those arguing in favor of the fingerprinting ordinance have taken a page out of Bernie Sanders’ book, urging voters to stand up to the big corporations.
So far, the pro-ridesharing PAC, "Ridesharing Works for Austin," has absolutely dominated in fundraising. As of March 28, it’s received $2.2 million in contributions from Uber and Lyft (which make up 100% of its funding). That includes both cash donations and in-kind help like staff time and the advertising in the Uber app.
A PAC urging voters to shoot down the companies' initiative, "Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice," has raised less than $12,500 since the campaign began.
Austin elections lawyer Buck Wood, who’s practiced law here since 1968 and isn’t working for either side, said the amount of money the ridesharing companies have spent is unprecedented for any municipal election in the city’s history.
“In this town, we haven’t seen money like this before,” Wood said. “Uber and Lyft must feel like if they lose here, they’ll have pressure to do fingerprinting everywhere.”
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Austin is the fourth largest city in Texas and the eleventh largest in the country, and its thriving tourism scene and festival circuit (like South by Southwest) attract big crowds. While it clings to its reputation as the most liberal city in the state, its public transit is lacking at best, and it's never been easy to catch a cab. So most people get around by car.
Combined with the drinking culture and nightlife on the popular Sixth Street—in the downtown area, where most people have to drive to reach—that has led to a drunk driving problem in the city. During SXSW in March 2014, a drunk driver plowed through a crowd of people, killing two and injuring 23.
A few months later, Uber and Lyft began operating in the city. For many here, they've become a key part of the transit network. In the last year, there's been a 23% reduction in drunk driving-related crashes, according to the Travis County Sheriff, who said in a statement that he thought the companies were responsible for at least part of that drop. Overall, there are more than 10,000 Uber drivers in the city.
At the same time, national scrutiny of Uber and Lyft's respective screening processes has intensified. The companies currently use third-party name and social security number-based checks during the hiring process to screen out anyone who has been convicted of violent crimes. But in California, prosecutors found that Uber's background checks failed to turn up people convicted of murder and sexual assault. Uber also settled two recent lawsuits for a total of $28.5 million over what plaintiffs contended were lax security screenings.
Local concerns grew when Austin police said that they had received seven complaints last year from women who said they were sexually assaulted by their Uber or Lyft drivers. In December, the City Council mandated fingerprint background checks. If voters vote yes on May 7, an ordinance written by Uber that doesn't require fingerprinting will replace the City Council law.
Laura Morrison, a former City Council member and a supporter of the fingerprinting, said the election wasn't about whether voters liked Uber or Lyft but instead about corporate influence in the city. "Do we really want laws written in a corporation's interest?" she asked me. "I think people are going to stand up and say we don't want corporations to rule this city."
Last Tuesday morning, Morrison and about 60 other people organized by the Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice PAC gathered in a drizzle outside the sandstone City Hall building to decry the two companies.
Many cited the California lawsuit, and said that fingerprinting was the only way to keep the city safe. "To put it simply, riders are safer with drivers who've been cleared with this process," said Ken Casaday, an Austin detective and the president of the local police union.
Morrison described the election as a "David versus Goliath contest" due to the funding gap between campaigns. Her side is mostly staffed by volunteers; Ridesharing Works for Austin has eight paid staff members and is already running TV ads.
A few blocks away from the rally, at a bustling coffee shop downtown, I met with three of the consultants of the pro-Uber PAC. In a sign of how much this race has scrambled typical partisan politics, the PAC employs both Travis Considine, Rick Perry's former press secretary, and Huey Rey Fischer, a 23-year-old UT-Austin grad who ran a left-wing campaign for state legislature earlier this year and got national attention for campaigning on Grindr.
According to them, the election is about the "old guard" of the City Council and taxicab lobby stymying innovation. "I'm worried that everyone's going to wake up on May 8, go to hail a rideshare, and say, 'Why isn't it working anymore?" Considine said.
"There's no empirical evidence that fingerprinting is safer," Fischer added. While many law enforcement officials say fingerprinting is more comprehensive than the companies' current background check system, there haven't been any wide-scale, independent studies comparing the two. (A nationwide review of crime data by The Associated Press earlier this year found no clear answers about whether taking an Uber is safer than taking a taxi.)
Moreover, the fingerprinting background check system currently used by Austin cabbies looks at arrests and not convictions, which Uber says could bias the results against over-policed communities of color. Uber and Lyft's current name-based system checks for criminal convictions at the local, state, and national level.
There seems to be something of a generational divide between the two sides in the election. The Uber-funded team is focused on turning out University of Texas students, many of whom use the apps to get from campus to downtown. "Ridesharing is something that's keeping my friends safe because it means you don't get into a car driven by someone who's been drinking," Fischer said.
At the pro-fingerprinting press conference, several older speakers seemed almost confused about why young people might get into a stranger’s car in the first place. Roy Waley, a representative of the Austin Sierra Club, surmised that Ridesharing Works for Austin was getting people to sign up in support "because don't it sound cool? Ain't it cool?"
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The Austin election is only the latest tussle in a nationwide tug-of-war between city governments that want to more strictly regulate ridesharing and the companies who want to write their own rules. In most cities, so far, Uber and Lyft have won similar political fights: New York abandoned plans to cap the number of ridesharing vehicles, Portland acquiesced to Uber's demands after it started operating illegally, and San Antonio undid regulations requiring fingerprinting after Uber and Lyft left.
Would Uber and Lyft actually leave Austin if they're required to fingerprint drivers? They say they will. But when Houston mandated fingerprint background checks, only Lyft left town.
Several Uber drivers I talked to—who didn't want to be quoted by name—said they hadn't been paying much attention to the upcoming election, even though theoretically it could result in them being out of a job. A twenty-something whose father and cousin also drive for the company said he thought fingerprinting made sense, and doubted Uber would pull out of the city whatever the result.
"I don't think drivers are too worried," he said as he dropped me off at a south side taco place.
Another young driver, who wore shorts, a tank top, and Ray-bans, said he thought the fingerprinting was a “straw-man argument” backed by the city's cab companies to hurt Uber.
"People depend on Uber for their livelihoods," he said. "Especially in a city like Austin, we’re growing fast, and we need this."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.