Uber, Lyft Push the Boundaries of Future Political Campaigning

  • Push notifications could be the future of political campaigns
  • Poll shows support of Proposition 22 ahead by a slim margin

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While spending more than $200 million on a California ballot measure campaign they call essential to their futures, gig-economy companies are relying on an ultra-low-cost system to help spread their message: their own vaults of customer data.

Californians with ride-hailing apps on their phones have gotten notifications to vote yes on a measure (Proposition 22) that seeks to permanently classify drivers for companies such as Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc., and DoorDash Inc. as independent contractors rather than employees under state law. Polls have indicated the race will be tight, with many voters undecided.

It’s part of a growing trend to deliver political messages by text as voters skip commercials and toss away paper ads. One researcher says it’s a tactic that could become more prevalent as legislators crack down on how political campaigns send out their digital messages.

“Clearly, it’s a very cheap way of reaching your customers,” said Bob Stern, the former general counsel with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. “Much cheaper than sending out a mailing or TV ads.”

As politicians and political causes seek to send messages directly to cell phones—without building expensive new apps or hiring outside firms—they will look at innovative ways to get there, election watchers say. But it could come at the cost of annoyed voters and new laws, like the recent moves to curtail robocalls.

“The power of text messages or push notifications is that people do still tend to look at them,” said Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif. Compared to an email, “you are much more likely to at least glance at it.”

But, “if it gets to the point where so many people are texting, so many companies are sending push notifications, voters will demand that policymakers rein it in,” Michelson added.

Digital Wallets

If the federal government or states ever crack down on excessive texting, campaigns will likely shift to using “digital wallet” apps to get their messages across, said Jacob Gursky, a research associate with the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement.

Those apps are automatically installed on smartphones to store credit card numbers, movie tickets, and other items that once stayed in wallets. They could also be loaded with a “virtual supporter card” for political candidates through which the campaign could send push notifications and bypass regulations on automatic messages. That method is already being used by Republicans and Democrats in this year’s presidential campaigns.

“The intention is to make the sort of one-to-one instant messaging that we’re seeing with Uber and Lyft and the presidential apps accessible to politicians who are seeking lower office,” Gursky said.

The Yes on Prop 22 campaign warns viewers in a recent television ad that not voting for the ballot measure could shut down rideshare and food delivery services in California.

Text-message outreach operates in a legal gray area, according to a white paper from the Center for Media Engagement.

The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t require that recipients of “peer-to-peer” texts opt into receiving the messages if phone numbers are manually dialed. As a result, political campaigns are paying firms to message voters by hitting “send” over and over, Gursky said.

$65 Million on TV, Radio

The Yes on Prop 22 campaign has spent plenty on traditional media too: about $65 million on television ads and radio, according to the commercial-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. They feature drivers who say that remaining contractors is crucial to keep their jobs.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed the landmark gig worker law (Assembly Bill 5) last year. It codified a state Supreme Court decision that made it harder for companies to employ independent contractors. The ride-share companies have been challenging the law in court, saying the new model would drive up prices and shut drivers out of being able to work on their own schedules.

Opponents of the measure, who say the companies’ tactics are misleading, filed a complaint with the fair practices panel saying the messages didn’t properly disclose which political campaign was funding them.

Pre-Uber ‘Dark Ages’ Drives California Ballot Message

In addition, drivers who want voters to defeat the ballot proposal unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining orderagainst Uber to stop the company from campaigning via their app. Those drivers, who say the initiative would leave them without employee protections and force them to work at substandard wages, alleged that Uber pressured them to respond to surveys and submit videos in support of the measure.

“To give a good customer service experience, sometimes I try to avoid politics,” Jerome Gage, a Lyft driver and supporter of the “No” campaign, said on a recent teleconference. “But it’s so frustrating when the passenger gets into the car, [they’re] thinking that I’m on the Prop 22 side.”

Polling conducted Oct. 16-23 found a neck-and-neck contest. Of the likely voters surveyed by the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies 46% said they were in favor of classifying app-based drivers as independent contractors; 42% said they would vote no, and 12% were undecided.

As for the workers who want to remain independent, “drivers are participating in text and phone banking events and supporting GOTV [get out the vote] efforts across the state,” “Yes” campaign spokesman Geoff Vetter said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Sacramento, Calif. at tstecker@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com

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