Make no mistake, the Prop. 1 election is about fingerprints -- but you may not know it.
Austin, be warned. Millions of dollars are being spent to confuse you.
Voting is underway on a confusing ballot proposition over how ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft are regulated. The companies are spending a lot of money to try and pass Austin Prop. 1, but do the ads pass the truth test?
The current rule on the books requires Austin to gradually phase in fingerprint background checks, a process which will include input from Uber and Lyft. The city council approved the rule hoping to increase safety, but the ridesharing companies argue that it will hurt their business by discouraging drivers from signing up.
You may have noticed your mailbox has been a little full lately. Uber, Lyft and their allies have spent a combined $2.2 million, almost twice what Steve Adler's campaign spent in the election for mayor, compared to roughly $15,000 spent by Prop. 1 opponents. What ridesharing companies are hoping to buy are more favorable regulations. Prop. 1 would return to older, looser rules Uber and Lyft helped write.
So let's take a look at the ads paid for and distributed by the companies' PAC, "Ridesharing Works for Austin."
One mailer claims if Prop 1. fails, "The City takes over to build a completely new city-run bureaucracy to process nearly 50,000 ridesharing background checks a year" and "doesn't specify crimes that restrict who can drive."
It doesn't because the city council hasn't gotten to that point yet. Remember, the current rule is still being rolled out. The fingerprints will be checked against FBI and Texas DPS databases, although the total volume is at best an educated guess. The city does have to figure out how to get it all done, although the current rule allows it to enlist the help of a third party.
A voiceover in the latest television ad currently states, "One-third of fingerprinted Austin taxi drivers failed Uber's tough background check process. In all, 53 drivers were rejected."
The wildly misleading claim is based on a set of just 163 drivers who tried to sign up -- which is only partially referenced in the on-screen text. The city counts 3,176 active taxi and chauffeur permits. A total of 53 hardly constitutes "one third of fingerprinted Austin taxi drivers," which the voiceover states. It's not even two percent.
The campaign rests on a key misdirection, which the ad also states: "A vote for prop one requires Uber and Lyft to keep conducting criminal background checks with full city oversight."
The statement shifts the focus away from the core question on the ballot. The truth is criminal background checks will continue no matter what, and the city will be involved no matter what. Prop. 1 would simply block the fingerprinting requirement -- and a number of others -- from taking effect.
As far as safety, there have certainly been incidents involving fingerprinted taxi drivers, just as there have been with Uber and Lyft drivers. Neither system is perfect. The new fingerprint requirement is indisputably another hoop for potential drivers, but ridesharing companies continue to operate profitably in Houston and New York despite fingerprint requirements there.
Uber and Lyft may or may not leave if it fails. That's their decision. How those companies are regulated is yours.