A DART train downtown. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Politics & Government

Will Free Rides Get People in Dallas to Vote?

DART—and, joining in the on fun, a bike share company—are offering free rides to the polls today.

DART, as it has admirably done for years, is offering free rides on Election Day, helping voters in today’s primary election get to the “DARTable gems” that are their precinct polling places. You do need your voter registration card, which is a pain and a more onerous requirement than anything included in the voter ID laws at the actual polls. Still, it can’t make Dallas’ voter turnout any worse than it is.

Ofo, the bike share company whose yellow fleet is one of the biggest in town, is also offering free rides today, and donating $1 per ride to the Dallas Parks Foundation. No free rides for LimeBike, but the company did on Monday send an email to Dallas riders extolling the virtues of voting. It’s a corporate standard now for companies to make anodyne noises about the importance of civic engagement on Election Day, usually of the sort that makes cynics roll their eyes, but the LimeBike email included a more specific and self-interested message as well: “Elected officials do not only respond to voters’ policy preferences, they also award a greater chunk of public resources like protected bike lanes to the people who bother to show up.”

So do free bus trips—or free rental bike rides—actually get more people to the polls? The evidence, for public transit at least, points to no. On DART, ridership differences on past election days have been negligible, and the story’s the same in cities like Houston, which also offers free public transit to polling places.

Transportation may be less of a barrier to voting than enthusiasm, often lower in local elections where turnout is even more miserable than in national contests. Just look at the early voting for this current election, where Democrats, likely fired up by well-publicized developments in national politics, are turning out in record numbers.

There’s a better case to be made that attention, as measured by prominence in the public sphere, or whatever the people on your social media feed are talking about, is an effective driver of voter turnout. Posts on Facebook, in the form of friends publicly shaming non-voter friends, have proven more effective at mobilizing voters than traditional get-out-the-vote efforts. According to a UT-Austin study from 2016:

The civic duty messages featuring reminders and polling locations had little impact on voter turnout, but the pride and shaming messages both substantially increased voter turnout. In one study, turnout among individuals who received praise messages was 16 percent higher than those who received no reminder. Turnout among those who received shaming messages was 24 percent higher.

In these individual studies, tagging one’s Facebook friends proved significantly more effective than traditional mobilization campaigns, which typically increase voter turnout by 3 to 8 percent.

In that case, it seems we can keep rolling our eyes at goodwill and publicity-seeking corporate reminders about the glories of democracy. Perhaps we should take heart, though, at what did work. As ugly as Election Day peer pressure on social media may be, it’s a better example of grassroots democracy than a carefully worded email from the tech company collecting all those location data from your phone.

There are certainly people who don’t vote because they can’t get to the polls. DART, by offering free transit on Election Day, even with the frustrating requirement of a voter registration card, is doing the right thing. It’s doing an even better thing if its free ride offer generates more public awareness about our elections.

But mostly, people in Dallas don’t vote because they don’t care—they don’t know why they should care, or they feel like their vote doesn’t matter. DART, Ofo, and Facebook can’t change that. You can, by telling your friends where to vote and why.