Illustration by Max Fleishman
On Thursday, political action committees for the special election submitted their campaign finance reports to the city. According to the reports, Uber and Lyft donated nearly $2.2 million to Ridesharing Works for Austin, the PAC running the “Vote FOR Prop 1” campaign. Both Uber and Lyft have threatened to leave the city if the proposition fails, maintaining that fingerprinting is unnecessary compared to the background check systems they each have in place.
On May 7, Travis County residents—the county encompassing Austin—will vote on Prop 1, a citizen’s petition ordinance that will allow transportation network companies (TNCs) to operate in the city without requiring them to conduct fingerprint-based background checks on their drivers.
Looking at the breakdown between these contributions, Uber donated nearly $418,000 more than Lyft. The former contributed $387,750 in cash and nearly $905,000 of in-kind contributions, whereas Lyft contributed $401,000 and just more than $474,000, respectively.
Some of these in-kind contributions go toward the PAC's recent hiring of at least five staff members for their outreach team. Since joining Ridesharing Works for Austin just over a week ago, Deputy Outreach Director Huey Rey Fischer has been on the ground at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, talking with student leaders about the May vote over coffee, and speaking to groups such as University Democrats and Students for Ridesharing.
“We always thought that Uber and Lyft [were] going to try to buy this election.”
Fischer, who recently ran for Texas House District 49, told the Daily Dot he quit his job to focus his efforts on his campaign. After the election, he turned to TNC driving in order to make ends meet and drove for Lyft during Austin’s annual South by Southwest conference.
Fischer said if Uber and Lyft leave Austin, students who rely on TNCs for supplemental income and safe rides late at night will be heavily impacted by their departure.
“It’s really important that students are just empowered with the knowledge that this election is happening, because we don’t want to lose these services [TNCs],” Fischer said. “I don’t know where [the election is] going to fall personally. I’m optimistic about it, especially with the facts that are out there.”
Financial contributions for two PACs against Prop 1 pale in comparison to the money Uber and Lyft have brought to the table. Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, a PAC promoting a grassroots campaign against the ordinance, reported $12,459 in combined cash and in-kind contributions, with $8,560 in loans. Austin Unites reported $1,621 in contributions.
Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, which began operating in late February, promotes voting against Prop 1, its argument being that corporations such as Uber and Lyft should not be able to bend public safety rules for their convenience. Mykle Thomlinson, campaign manager for the PAC, told the Daily Dot it appears to him that Uber and Lyft are attempting to purchase the election.
“We always thought that Uber and Lyft [were] going to try to buy this election, but I think that the citizens of Austin won’t be fooled by all of those corporate dollars being dumped into this race,” Thomlinson said. “Everything that Uber and Lyft are putting out is very misleading. They’re trying to muddy the waters because they can’t win on their own message.”
Thomlinson isn’t alone. On Wednesday, the Austin American-Statesman reported that discounted rides from Uber and Lyft have been perceived as attempts to influence voters, and should be reported as financial contributions. In addition, the Statesman reported that Uber’s smartphone receipts state “Vote FOR Prop 1 on May 7th. Pol. Ad. Authorized by Ridesharing Works for Austin.”
“Every trip in Austin has that notice [supporting the ballot initiative] on the receipt,” an Uber spokesperson told the Statesman. “It has no connection to market promotions.”
According to a statement sent by Lyft Communications Manager Paige Thelen to the Daily Dot, Lyft made the large financial contribution in order to better inform voters about the upcoming election. When the ballot language was decided in February, Austin City Council members George Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair said the language was framed in an attempt to “sway voters.”
“Since launching in Austin nearly two years ago Lyft has worked hard to build a strong community, and we're continuing that effort through the Vote FOR Proposition One campaign,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, the ballot language voters will see on May 7th is extremely misleading and we will continue working to ensure that people have all the facts about this election.”
Uber and Austin Unites Treasurer Johanna Kraus-Darden did not respond to a request for comment. Ridesharing Works for Austin spokesperson Travis Considine was unavailable for comment.