Listen to this article
More tech companies than ever will be trying to help Americans get to the polls next week.
On election day Uber will help riders find their polling station in the Uber app and give them a ride there, though customers will still pay the usual fare. Meanwhile, Tinder, the dating app, has asked its users to swipe right or left on political issues.
For voters who have trouble making up their minds, Facebook can walk them through a sample ballot — which can run to dozens of questions — and help them mark their preferences.
While all of these programs try to encourage voting next Tuesday in a non-partisan way, some tech efforts to get out the vote have raised concerns about impartiality because there is little oversight.
“We should be monitoring and holding organisations that do this sort of work accountable,” said Mindy Romero, who leads the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis. “Where they are unbiased and it is about opening up access, they should be praised …But we should make sure their efforts are not violating our principles of an open democratic process.”
Part of the reason for the scrutiny is the huge impact that social networks can have on users’ behaviour. When Facebook reminded its users to register to vote earlier this year, California, the most populous US state, saw a surge of nearly 200,000 registrations in one weekend.
Another reason for the concern is that private companies have become increasingly active in an area that was once the provenance of political campaigns and non-profits.
Earlier this year, Lyft, the ride-hailing company, offered free rides to the polls during a referendum in Austin, Texas. The only measure on the ballot that day was a new ride-sharing law that Lyft strongly opposed — and the free rides raised eyebrows.
Other tech companies, including Pinterest, are rolling out more voter engagement tools this weekend.
For Uber, helping riders find their polling station will be a first. Lyft will offer discounted trips in certain markets.
Separately, My Ride to Vote, a super PAC that supports Hillary Clinton, is using both Uber and Lyft to offer free rides to voters in battleground states.
In the US it is illegal to pay someone to vote a certain way, although a free ride to the polls is not considered a payment.