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As May 7 election nears, voting efforts ramp up

Friday, March 18, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

Early voting on the future of fingerprinting drivers for hire in Austin begins in five weeks, and interested parties are hard at work educating the public on which button to press at the polls.

On Monday, the Supreme Court of Texas upheld ballot language that City Council approved in February after a political action committee gathered thousands of signatures on a citizens petition requiring the election.

The Ridesharing Works for Austin PAC – backed by transportation network companies Uber and Lyft, among others – organized quickly after Council passed an ordinance requiring drivers to submit their fingerprints for a background check in order to work for the companies.

Austin’s 675,000 registered voters will have about a week – April 25 to May 3 – to cast early ballots before the May 7 election, when they will vote in favor or against repealing the ordinance and replacing it with one that’s more TNC-friendly and was proposed by the PAC. A race is now on for those voters, who must be registered by April 7.

So far this month, 3,000 people have registered to vote, said Bruce Elfant, the county’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar.

In a recent interview with the Austin Monitor, Elfant commended Uber’s voter registration effort – involving on-demand deputy registrars – and said he estimates that about 50 to 100 volunteer deputy registrars work for TNCs.

“It’s kind of innovative,” Elfant said. “If somebody calls me, I’m not going to drive to their house. This is an important issue, and it really speaks as to how business is going to be done down at City Hall. I would rather see a significant amount of citizens vote.”

An Uber spokeswoman wasn’t available to comment Thursday. Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said the company is focused on voter registration and supporting the Ridesharing Works for Austin PAC.

“We look forward to waging a very effective and comprehensive campaign between now and May 7,” said Reed Galen, the PAC’s spokesman and consultant. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we’re victorious.”

Taxi drivers – who support the ordinance Council passed last year requiring the fingerprinting, and oppose the upcoming ballot initiative – are working to sway the public, too.

On Tuesday, a dozen protesters held white signs with bright writing, attempting to catch the eyes of lanyard-bearing South by Southwest attendees.

“The public should be safe,” said Nega Taddesse, representing the Taxi Drivers Association of Austin to a small media gaggle. “They should know who they’re riding with.”

Also present were the Austin Area AFL-CIO and the Travis County Democratic Party, which opposes Ridesharing Works for Austin’s proposed ordinance. Among other benefits of Council’s ordinance, the party sees the fingerprint requirement as a way to level the playing field between companies that compete for passengers.

Travis County Democratic Party PresidentTaxi Drivers Association of Austin President David Passmore said the protesters deliberately chose the corner of Second and Trinity streets. “This is a world stage,” Passmore said. “We want to get a leg up on getting the word out.”

When asked how he believes the public is leaning on the issue, Passmore said his 620 union members are too busy now to conduct polls and are “working behind the scenes.”

Galen declined to say what the PAC’s polling has revealed or who has given it donations this year. New campaign finance reports are due April 7.

Joe Deshotel, communications director for the Travis County Democratic Party, said the issue would be at the forefront of the local Democratic Party convention Saturday.

“This is about a precedent that’s going to be set that if you have a big enough budget, you can pass your own regulations,” Deshotel said.

The election will cost the city about $800,000, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has told the Austin Monitor.

Uber and Lyft have long claimed that their own background checks, which cover the previous seven years of a driver’s history, are sufficient. They have elsewhere rejected regulations that order drivers to get fingerprinted. They claim that the process would dissuade would-be drivers, many of whom have other jobs and drive to supplement incomes.

Public safety officials, though, have continuously said that fingerprinting is the only way to ensure that a person is whom they claim to be.

A city document released to the Monitor states that in 2014, seven taxi drivers were accused of sexual assault and one was accused of rape. In 2015, there were three alleged sexual assaults by cab drivers and two accusations of rape.

Also in 2015, four Lyft drivers, 13 Uber drivers and one driver from Uber or Lyft were accused of sexual assault. Two drivers for Lyft and one Uber driver faced rape allegations.

The city data doesn’t include the number of rides per year, and officials said that makes comparing the frequency of allegations impossible.

“Linking the names via a name-based background check (as TNCs do) is not always going to be 100 percent accurate,” Austin Police Department Chief of Staff Brian Manley told the city’s Public Safety Commission last week. “Your fingerprints are your fingerprints.”

Manley also cited an oft-repeated statistic that 11.7 percent of a sample of people who appeared to have no violations under a name-based background check were found to have violations under a fingerprint-based one.

“I don’t see why TNC drivers should be treated differently than taxi drivers,” said Commission Chair Kim Rossmo, who made a motion at the meeting to support fingerprinting.

Rossmo said that Council did not ask the commission to weigh in on the issue of fingerprinting and “seemed to have made up their minds. It’s rare for City Council to ask our opinion on anything.”

Instead, Rossmo said, commission members insisted that the group take a vote. But two members abstained and two weren’t present, so nothing passed. He said he will ask the group to clarify its statement and is “somewhat mystified,” because the commission seemed driven to have its voice known on fingerprinting.

“A much bigger issue is at play, though,” Rossmo said, “and that’s how do we handle democracy? Most people want TNCs – we’re just saying there needs to be the same protections that we have for taxicab drivers.”

This story has been corrected to reflect David Passmore’s actual position.

Bob Cash of the Austin Area AFL-CIO hands out fliers near the Austin Convention Center. Photo by Eva Ruth Moravec.

Bob Cash of the Austin Area AFL-CIO hands out fliers near the Austin Convention Center. Photo by Eva Ruth Moravec.

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