Perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much about a confusion factor with the ballot language that Austin voters will encounter on Proposition 1 in the May 7 election.
After all, as last week’s campaign finance reports made clear, Uber and Lyft have already spent more than $2 million to make sure most voters know whether to vote for or against the ballot question. But already, Statesman columnist Ken Herman and I have heard from readers who are befuddled by the wording they see posted on the Travis County clerk’s sample ballot. One of them, who told me her intention was to oppose Uber and Lyft, said she would have inadvertently voted the other way based on what she had read in the ballot language.
It is not hard to see why. Here’s what each of you Austin voters will encounter when you go to the polls during early voting (April 25 to May 3) or on May 7:
PROPOSITION 1, CITY OF AUSTIN
Shall the City Code be amended to repeal City Ordinance No. 20151217-075 relating to Transportation Network Companies; and replace with an ordinance that would repeal and prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicle with a distinctive emblem, repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane, and require other regulations for Transportation Network Companies?
Then there are two boxes below that. Next to one it says “For the Ordinance” and on the other, “Against the Ordinance.”
Which raises the first and most important question, after all that language above: Now, which ordinance exactly are you asking me about???
Yes, there are a few problems there. I teach writing over at Austin Community College, and if one of my students turned that in, the red pen would get a workout. Clarity, dear writer — above all else, clarity.
(Don’t blame Uber and Lyft for this literary abomination, by the way. The Austin City Council, by a 9-2 vote, crafted and approved the ballot language.)
Let’s start with the bit about repealing Ordinance No. Blah-blah-blah. You can be pretty sure that no one is going to know offhand what that law has in it. I know, because I covered it when the council passed it in December. I found it easily Friday using Google (12 pages … enjoy), but how many people, really, are going to do that?
So there’s that problem. But then we get into what seems like the bureaucratic version of a triple or quadruple negative. The voter is asked whether he or she wants to amend something, to repeal something, and replace something with something that would repeal something and prohibit fingerprinting. Then there are a couple of other repeals thrown in there, and then a requiring of something.
And all of this has to do with Transportation Network Companies, which regular readers of the Statesman might recognize as ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. But others might know them by the companies’ preferred descriptor: ride-sharing. We don’t use that term here because sharing implies altruism, something given rather than something you have to pay to get. Like a ride with Uber or Lyft. But that’s another story.
Anyway, by this point, what’s an uninformed or lightly informed voter to think? If I vote yes, what am I repealing? Or if I vote no, what am I not repealing?
Oh, wait (my imagined voter says as he reads further), I’m not being asked a yes-or-no question. I’m being asked if I’m for or against an ordinance. Some ordinance. Maybe that No. 20151217-075 thing they told me about? Well, no, as it turns out, just the opposite.
So let me make it simple for you.
- Austin has a law in place now for Uber and Lyft. It requires fingerprinting of drivers and some other stuff. Uber and Lyft don’t like that law.
- They wrote up another potential law. It would not require fingerprinting of drivers. In fact, it would say that the city of Austin could not require fingerprinting. It would also get rid of some of that other stuff in the current law.
- Uber and Lyft (through a surrogate) did a petition drive, which succeeded. Under that petition, we’re having an election on that Uber and Lyft potential law. If you vote “for the ordinance” in the election, that Uber and Lyft ordinance will become Austin law, and the one in place now passed by the Austin City Council will be kaput.
- If you vote “against the ordinance,” the Uber and Lyft law will not happen. The existing city law, and fingerprinting for drivers, will stay in effect.
Mind you, the issues underlying which law should govern Austin ride-hailing are far from simple, no matter how the two campaigns might try to make them seem over the coming month. But for those of you who have the time and patience to understand the complexity of the situation, it is important that in the end you don’t get foiled by the ballot language and screw up your vote.
You’ll note that what I wrote above did not say, “If you want to keep Uber and Lyft in Austin, vote for the ordinance,” which is a fashioning of the pending question that you will no doubt hear often between now and the election.
But know this: If the ordinance fails, Uber and Lyft will NOT be required by city law to shut down operations here. They could choose to do so, but that would be at their option.
Are we clear?