Barely half of American voters are turning out at the polls. Could making transit free on election day help?
By Sam Sturgis, November 3, 2014
Can free buses, subways, and trains strengthen our democracy?
Americans are going to the polls at depressingly low rates.
Only 57 percent of registered voters participated in the 2012 presidential election. That figure is expected to be even lower for Tuesday’s midterm election. And as states increasingly enact laws that require
voters to present a photo ID at the voting booth, some argue voter
turnout is being further suppressed. But officials in Minnesota are
hoping turnout rates bounce back this year because of a new public
On Tuesday, Metro Transit—the
Twin Cities’ growing public transportation network—will offer bus,
light rail, and commuter rail services free of charge. This is in
response to a statewide law passed last year that requires Minnesota’s
cities to provide free public transit on national election days. This is
pretty uncommon: Only a handful of major U.S. cities—including Dallas,
Houston, Tampa, and now the Twin Cities—offer complimentary transit on
Janice Winfrey, the City Clerk of Detroit, has been lobbying
her city to adopt similar Election Day transportation measures. “I just
think it needs to be part of the discussion regarding voter turnout and
ways to increase it,” Winfrey, who also serves as the city’s chief
election officer, says. Few Detroit voters have publicly complained
about the financial burdens of traveling to their polling place, but
Winfrey believes, “any way we can increase voter turnout is something we
should look into.”
The perceived, indirect costs of voting are frequently cited
by political scientists as factors for low voter turnout. Getting to
the voting booth costs time and money for travel; if those costs
outweigh the perceived benefits of voting, it's likely a person will
simply stay home. But what if cities, as Minneapolis will do on Tuesday,
eliminate the cost of public transit on election day? Does it
incentivize voters to make it to the polling booth, ultimately
strengthening our democracy?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no—or at least understudied.
According to data provided by urban transportation networks, free
transit services appear to have a negligible influence on the number of
voters that turn out to the polls. Houston’s METRO
system has provided free public transit during general elections since
1992. Ridership during voting periods, however, generally increases by a
mere one percent. In fact, ridership on election day has been so
indistinguishable that exploring and “extrapolating the results were not
worthwhile,” a METRO official said by email.
Similarly, Dallas’s public transportation network—DART—has
provided free transit to voters for more than three decades. Officials
acknowledged over email that an “increase in ridership on election day
is minimal, if at all.”
Tampa voters rely on their free public transit service more than others, but the results remain modest. HART—Tampa’s
public transit network—introduced a complimentary service starting in
2010, and voters have constituted about four to five percent of election
day ridership from then through 2014.
Voters in Dallas, Tampa, and Houston are required to show a voter ID
or registration card in order to get a free lift to the polls. This
could deter some registered voters from getting a free ride (and from
voting). The Twin Cities' free service, meanwhile, doesn't require
riders to present any form of ID.
"It’s not going to help if you've got a free ride down to the polling
place and you don’t have an ID," says Jim Gimpel, a political scientist
from the University of Maryland. "That sort of neutralizes [its
Political scientists are generally pessimistic about the ability of
free transit services to yield any increase in voter turnout. In the
end, they say, people vote based on enthusiasm, not a free bus ride.
“If we just make public transit free on election day, maybe some
would use it on the margin, but that’s not the real cost of voting,”
says Adam J. Berinsky, a political scientist from MIT. “The real cost is
getting people engaged enough in voting to go out and do it,” Berinsky
"Most of the research shows that for low turnout, the biggest problem is a lack of motivation,” Gimpel agrees.
Still, a complimentary transit service does belong somewhere in
discussions about electoral reform. If turnout is influenced heavily by
enthusiasm, couldn’t free transit send a signal to city residents that
voting is important? Alan S. Gerber, a political scientist at Yale
University, thinks such a policy could heighten the overall significance
of election day.
“Making transportation free on election day is a clear statement that
society values voting,” Gerber says in an email. “This message, that
voting is important…may be a significant impetus to vote over and above
the turnout produced by lowered transportation costs.”
This debate is far from settled. But keep an eye on the Twin Cities
this election season—or at least on how full the free buses and trains