Getting a ride with Uber or Lyft doesn’t spring immediately to mind as an example of democracy in action, but on Election Day, the companies plan to offer discounted rides and free trips to voters facing transportation challenges in partnership with groups like #VoteTogether and DemocracyWorks (Uber) and the National Federation of the Blind, Voto Latino, and the National Urban League (Lyft). There’s more to this than good corporate citizenship, as the firms anticipate profiting from their discounted fares and from broadening their rider base, though they also are working with voting-rights groups to raise awareness of voter-registration tools and other election information.
Forward-thinking transit systems in some cities and smaller locales also offer free rides on Election Day. But most people fend for themselves. Many voters do not have access to alternatives like early voting—and even if they do, they may not know about them or use them. An Election Day trip from home to a far-off polling place can become a problem that may have a simple outcome: If you can’t get a ride, forget about voting.
It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it may be to get that ride. A 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections found that 30 percent of registered youth did not vote because they said they couldn’t get to the polls. Inadequate transportation was the third most-cited reason for not showing up, placing just behind disliking the candidates and issues and being too busy or having a conflict like work or school.
Some urban and suburban voters can experience polling place access challenges that affect turnout if they live in areas underserved by transit or are plagued by traffic congestion. Rural voters often have higher turnout rates, since traffic is not a factor in getting to a polling place—provided they own a vehicle.
Lining up reliable transportation on Election Day matters because the votes add up. The harder it is to get to a polling place, the fewer people turn out to vote. A 2011 UC Berkeley study found that the consolidation of Los Angeles County polling places for the 2003 gubernatorial recall election produced a hefty drop in turnout in part because of transportation challenges.
The highest transportation hurdles emerge from deliberate strategies to keep people from voting. In the voter-suppression canon, deterring a few hundred people can make all the difference in the world in determining who controls government and who doesn’t. Republican local and state officials work overtime to increase the transportation headaches of young people, the elderly, African Americans, Latinos, and others who want to vote.
The Lauderdale County, Mississippi, election commission shuttered polling places in black churches in Meridian after Percy Bland, a black Democrat, became mayor in 2013. In Randolph County, Georgia, officials recently proposed closing most polling places in the majority-black county, which would have forced some people into a ten-mile trek to vote elsewhere. A “national media spectacle” over the clumsy suppression attempt compelled them to backtrack, however.
Indeed, such efforts often inspire pushback. Transportation initiatives like Souls to the Polls door-to-door shuttle services run by black churches have been hugely successful in countering suppression ploys, and, of course, candidates’ and parties’ own campaigns, when well organized, compile lists of supporters who need a way to get to the polls, to whom they give rides on Election Day.
Overcoming conventional transportation challenges does not have to be a mind-bending exercise. But only three states, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, where people have voted by mail for almost 20 years, have solved the problem by conducting all elections by mail. (Certain elections in an increasing number of states and localities are vote-by-mail affairs.)
One major reason that mail-only voting hasn’t taken off more is the opposition of the Republican Party, which prides itself on making voting more difficult for people in its never-ending quest to root out statistically insignificant instances of voter fraud.
Other alternatives to the precinct model of voting do exist. Twelve states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah, use vote centers, designated locations where any registered voter can go and vote even if they don’t live in the area. Vote centers, for instance, can make life easier for registered voters by enabling them to vote near their worksite when they can’t make it home. They are also cheaper for states and localities to operate. California (where nearly half the electorate votes by mail) will adopt vote centers this year in Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo counties.
While vote centers can make it easier for infrequent voters to cast their ballots, they can also create new transportation nightmares. Arizona switched to vote centers in 2016 and drastically reduced the number of polling places. The result was hours-long waits to vote. In some minority communities, the precinct polling places had been shut down and no vote centers established to take their place.
In California, state law tackles the transportation challenges by requiring that the centers be “equitably distributed across the county so as to afford maximally convenient options for voters and at accessible locations near to public transportation routes.” Colorado also requires local officials to consider “proximity to public transportation.”
Casting a ballot should not involve the kind of logistics needed to scale Denali. Some voters have always been more equal than others; the age of Trump just magnifies the injustices. But equity must be an intrinsic component of voting. Until better alternatives gain widespread adoption, taking inadequate transportation out of the voting experience can boost turnout and focus voters’ attention where it belongs: on candidates, issues, and the fate of the republic.