MIT Economist Finds Distance to Polling Place Effects Ballots Cast

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In a recent study published in the American Economic Journal titled ‘A Precinct Too Far: Turnout and Voting Costs’, MIT economist Enrico Cantoni found that “a 1-standard deviation (.245 mile) increase in distance to the polling place reduces the number of ballots cast by 2% to 5% in the 2012 presidential, 2013 municipal, 2014 midterm, and 2016 presidential primary elections.” And he concludes that “erasing the effect of distances to polling places would increase turnout by 1.6 to 4 percentage points and reduce minority participation gaps in non-presidential elections by 11% to 13%. We also know that fewer than 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan (less than 1% in those states) decided the 2016 Presidential Election and fewer than 600 votes in Florida decided the 2000 Presidential Election. Voter turnout will be absolutely paramount to the Democrats’ cause in 2020, and transportation could play a big role in getting the necessary votes to win.

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On New Year’s Eve, the Los Angeles Metro system offered free bus and rail services from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. The city of San Diego offered free metro service after 6 p.m. The City of Albany teamed up with a law firm to provide free cab rides home. Many cities around the country had programs like this on New Year’s Eve. And, both Lyft and Uber offered discounted rides on New Year’s Eve. The goal was to reduce the likelihood of drunk driving. So, will this also happen on Election Day in 2020?

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Both Lyft and Uber have offered discounted rides on previous Election Days as far back as 2015. They will likely offer discounted rides on Election Day in 2020, but maybe some generous organizations could sponsor free rides through Lyft and Uber in key districts in swing states. This would effectively eliminate the impact of distance and cost to voters as described in Enrico Cantoni’s analysis. In other words, it would make it easier and cheaper for voters to get to their polling locations, which would be a big deal in low-income communities. There would likely be no shortage of Lyft and Uber drivers as the rides would still be paid for by Lyft, Uber, or a sponsoring organization. And the drivers would be guaranteed high demand and consistent rides throughout the day.

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In Aaron Sorkin’s movie Charlie Wilson’s War, there is a scene where Congressman Charlie Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, describes the day he fell in love with America. In the scene, Congressman Charlie Wilson recalls when he was 13 and what he did when a Town Councilman killed his dog. “Come Election Day, I drove over to the Black section of town. These people hadn’t voted in any of these elections. I was only 13, but I had a farmer’s license. I filled up my car with Black voters and drove them to the polling place. I waited, then drove them on home. But, before they got out of the car to vote, I said, ‘I don’t mean to influence you, but I think you should know Mr. Charles Hazzard intentionally killed my dog.’ About 400 ballots were cast in that election. I drove 96 of them to the polls. Hazzard lost by 16 votes. And that’s the day I fell in love with America.” This anecdote from Congressman Charlie Wilson’s youth can be instructive for us today. If we assume that the study done by the MIT economist is right, then perhaps we should consider organizing the largest free rideshare and public transportation event in America’s history.

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Consider for a moment the people that don’t vote because of distance from their polling location or because of the cost associated with getting to the polling location. We can of course encourage them to fill out absentee ballots, but we should also organize to drive as many people as possible to the polls. Election Day should be a day when people across the country offer rides to the polls to people in their community. There are many religious organizations that do this for the elderly every Election Day. It should be possible to replicate these types of programs for every voter in every precinct. Some school districts have made Election Day a school holiday, which means the school buses are available for use. It is conceivable that the same bus routes that pick up the students every day could be used on Election Day to pick up voters and take them to the polls. This isn’t something that needs to be organizated by national organizations. This is something that every community can organize at the local level. Let’s have a competition. Which precinct can achieve the highest voter turnout?

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