Ostensibly To Avoid Laws Against Vote Buying, Lyft and Uber Offer Only One-Way Free Transportation to the Polls


Much has been made recently about the good deed being offered by two of America’s most popular ridesharing services. Uber and Lyft have both announced that they are going to give voters in the midterm elections rides to the polls on Tuesday, November 6.

But what Uber and Lyft aren’t saying, at least not as loud, is that those free rides to the polling stations are one way. In other words, once you take one of these companies up on their offer, they won’t take you back home — for free, at least….

Team Clark reached out to Lyft, as well, about the free rides. A Lyft spokeswoman replied via email that free or discounted transportation back from the polls could be construed as a gift for voting.

“The ride only covers the way there. Voting is every citizen’s right, which means there are a number of regulations in place to protect against voter fraud or buying someone’s vote. There are strict rules against gifts or incentives, and providing free or discounted transportation back from the polls falls into that category,” she wrote.

The question of whether return trips are illegal is one I have not seen before. The federal prohibition on vote buying. The relevant statute, among other things, makes it a crime for one who willfully “pays or offers to pay or accepts payment either for registration to vote or for voting.” The statute has long been interpreted to allow payments for transportation to the polls. As one court explained:

In United States v. Lewin, 467 F.2d 1132, 1136 (7th Cir.1972), the court classified providing transportation to the polls as “assistance rendered by civic groups to prospective voters,” rather than payment, and held that § 1973i(c) does not proscribe “efforts by civic groups or employers to encourage people to register.” The United States Department of Justice appears to agree with this analysis.

[T]he concept of “payment” does not reach things such as rides to the polls or time off from work which are given to make it easier for those who have decided to vote to cast their ballots. Such “facilitation payments” are to be distinguished from gifts made personally to prospective voters for the specific purpose of stimulating or influencing the more fundamental decision to participate in an election.Craig C. Donsanto, Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses 18 (5th ed. 1988).

The distinction between “facilitative” programs and “gift” programs seems based in part on historical factors which preceded the passage of most voting rights legislation. See Day-Brite Lighting v. State of Missouri, 342 U.S. 421, 424-25, 72 S. Ct. 405, 407-08, 96 L. Ed. 469 (1952) (upholding state law requiring employer to allow employees four hours of paid leave on election day in order to vote); 111 Cong.Rec.S. 8986 (daily ed. April 29, 1965) (Section 1973i(c) does not prohibit the “practice that has been recognized and has been accepted by both political parties and all organizations with respect to helping to transport people who do not have means of transportation to the polls in order to cast their ballots”). See also Parsley v. Cassady, 300 Ky. 603189 S.W.2d 947, 948 (1945) (upholding candidates’ contribution of cars and trucks to assist in voter transportation as reasonable due to bad roads and wartime exigencies); Watkins v. Holbrook, 311 Ky. 236223 S.W.2d 903, 903-04 (1949) (upholding disbursement of money to provide for transport to polls to “get out the vote”).

Perhaps more importantly, this distinction reflects the difficulty in balancing the need to minimize undue pecuniary influence in elections with the desire to encourage and facilitate maximum political participation…..

I think a good faith argument could be made that the exemption for transportation to the polls includes a return trip. Indeed, most groups that offer rides to the polls (on buses or otherwise) offer a round trip. I wonder whether this is just a way for Lyft and Uber to save some money. Hard for me to believe they’d be in legal jeopardy for offering round trip transportation. Would be great to find a way to test this.

(Thanks to Matt Weil for asking the question.)


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