How ride-share services are helping vulnerable voters get to the polls: 'Their voice is just as important as ours'

Silver Lift is offering free transportation to Austin-area senior citizens wanting to vote. (Photo: Courtesy of Silver Lift)
Silver Lift is offering free transportation to Austin-area senior citizens wanting to vote. (Photo: Courtesy of Silver Lift)

Raul Camacho was planning an early start on Oct. 13, the first day of early voting in Texas. Though his Central Texas ride-share service for senior citizens had been hit hard by the pandemic — “we almost went out of business completely,” he tells Yahoo Life, noting a roughly 85 percent loss in revenue — Camacho had an important pick-up scheduled: an elderly voter wanting to be there when the polling place opened its doors at 7 a.m. The cost of the fare: Zero dollars.

It’s all thanks to the “Drive-the-Vote” campaign Camacho is running via his Silver Lift car service, which caters to passengers aged 55 and up as well as those who are visually impaired. Through Election Day, Nov. 3, Silver Lift’s fleet and volunteer drivers will offer free rides to local seniors wanting to cast their vote in-person at a polling place or drop-off their mail-in ballot. Given Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial Oct. 1 proclamation limiting drop-off locations for mail-in ballots to one per county, that latter task is especially fraught this election season — and what inspired Camacho to take action.

Though Camacho says he voted for Abbott and considers himself politically independent, he found the governor’s ruling “un-American” and one that would cause undue strain to the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income voters with limited transportation options. Despite the losses his business has suffered over the past few months, as the owner of a car service, the Texan says he “just couldn’t stand back and do nothing” in the wake of Abbott’s proclamation.

“I just felt my calling, basically,” says Camacho, whose business is based in Leander, near the capital of Austin. “This is not right. I work with a whole bunch of seniors and I see how hard it is for them to get around and a lot of these folks are on a fixed budget, so they can’t afford Uber or Lyft or a taxi. And many of them don’t have family members to help them out with rides. A lot of them are living on the outskirts of suburban areas ... because they can’t afford the high cost of living here in Austin.”

In light of the pandemic and the high-risk category in which many seniors fall, Camacho’s drivers are following COVID-19 protocols. Only one rider is allowed per journey, and must sit in the backseat and wear a mask; drivers also wear masks and wipe down the car surfaces with Clorox wipes between rides. Hand sanitizer is also provided, and prospective riders are quizzed about their health and recent travel.

Silver Lift won’t just be doing drop-offs; they’re prepared to wait an hour or more if long lines form at local polling places before bringing their passenger safely home.

“They’re willing to spend that much time to do this,” Camacho says of the volunteers who have stepped up to join the handful of cars in Silver Lift’s rotation. “It’s very admirable that they’re going put in their time to help another person, to make their voice count.”

While Silver Lift is reaching out to voters aged 55-plus and the visually impaired, Texans outside of those demographics have other options. In Dallas, the ride-share company Alto will provide free Election Day rides to the polls for voters of all ages, while that city’s RideShare2Vote organization will give lifts to Democrats from Oct. 13 to 30 and again on Nov. 3; wheelchair-accessible vehicles are available upon request.

Like Texas, Georgia has sparked concerns about voter suppression. Since early voting in the state, which was plagued with the closed voting locations, large crowds and broken machines during June’s primary, got underway, photos of hours-long lines outside polling places have caused alarm. It’s perhaps little surprise, then, that some groups have focused their voter outreach efforts here. The Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), a nonprofit pushing for “economic justice” and affordable homeownership, has launched its “Roll to the Polls” voter mobilization campaign in two key cities with substantial minority populations — Atlanta and Houston — and will have a fleet of more than 150 vans running voters to the polls throughout early voting and on Election Day.

During early voting for Georgia’s run-off elections this past August, Austin Rayford partnered with a local limousine company, Elite Limousine Services, to get voters of all ages in Macon-Bibb County to the polls in style. For the presidential election, his advocacy organization Austin Advocates, which pushes for “social justice, education and well-being,” set its sights on voter engagement by helping to host Macon’s Early Voting Pep Rally on Oct. 24, which marks the state’s “Mandatory Saturday,” the only weekend day in which early voting can take place. The People’s Advocacy Group will be providing rides for anyone wanting to vote that day. Sheknita Davis, the group’s founder, says that making sure everyone has access to the polls feels especially important this year.

“I do think there is more willingness to get engaged in the democratic process,” Davis tells Yahoo Life. “I think that more people have a desire to get out and cast their vote. There have been a lot of things that have taken place over the last couple of years, and people have been paying attention and really want to exercise their right to vote. Some of the most vulnerable members of our society can be the disabled as well as our seniors and those are not able to stand in long lines or have adequate transportation.”

On a national level, the ride-share companies Uber and Lyft are also making efforts to make rides to the polls more accessible. Lyft is offering a 50 percent discount on rides to polling places and ballot drop-off locations on Election Day; similarly, roundtrip Uber rides to voting destinations will be half-off on Nov. 3, up to $7 each way. Both services have also partnered with various nonprofit organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Macon and the Women’s Diversity Group, to provide underserved communities with free rides. (For senior citizens interested in taking advantage of such offers but in need of assistance when it comes to navigating the app technology, services like GoGo Grandparent can serve as a more seamless go-between.)

The nationwide Roll to the Polls initiative (not to be confused with the NACA program of the same name), meanwhile, offers voters free and discounted rides via bike-share or electric scooter, though these of course may not be an option for individuals with limited mobility or rural and suburban homes. And in Michigan, the Detroit Bus, which supports its mission of improving local transit options for underserved communities by offering public and private curated tours and hosting events like weddings, will also be getting stranded voters out to the polls on Nov. 3.

From Nevada to New Hampshire, many local governments are providing eligible voters with free public transportation on Election Day, as are bus and shuttle services — including STAR Transit in Texas, JAUNT in Virginia and Independence Express in New York — frequently used by senior citizens and disabled individuals for doctor’s appointments and other errands.

But, as Davis notes, not all polling places are on bus routes, and “individuals may not have the resources to use a ride-share service.” She says it’s important that voters, particularly those of advanced age and/or with a disability, get not only rides but also support to make their voting process more comfortable. That could mean members of the community offering rides, bringing folding chairs and bottles of water to vulnerable voters stuck in long lines, and making the absentee ballot process transparent and efficient.

Camacho, who says some of his elderly ride-share clients have missed doctor’s appointments and pharmacy visits for their prescriptions during the pandemic due to a lack of safe, accessible transportation, agrees that these voters shouldn’t be overlooked.

“We need to accommodate them,” he says of his clients. “Their voice is just as important as ours.”

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This story was originally published on Oct. 14, 2020 at 3:57 p.m. ET.

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