In California, proposition 22 seemed innocuous. It was a simple ballot measure, should drivers that use apps like Uber and Lyft be considered employees, or independent contractors? The vote passed at a 58-42 percent majority in favor of independent contractors. From the outside, it sounds like legal jargon. Yet the distinction sparked a $200 million ad campaign from rideshare apps, national debate, and a demonstration of corporate control that rivals Putin’s hand over Russia. So why did this all happen?
The crucial piece of information is that the difference between being labeled as an independent contractor vs an employee is important for labor rights. Employees get healthcare, a minimum wage, and a slew of other protections. Independent contractors don’t. This means that classified as contractors, rideshare apps can pay as low as $5.64 an hour to their drivers while giving limited to no benefits.
Seeing these apps wanting to avoid labor responsibilities, tons of democrats and national figures came out against proposition 22. Rising star Alexandria Ocasio Cortez said that the companies “have made very public that they want to roll back” key labor protections, and she was just one name on the anti-proposition 22 list. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. All of these big name democrats spoke out against the proposition before the vote with a clear message: a yes vote is a vote against the working people of America. With California as a deep blue state, it would make sense that the people’s opinion would match up with popular democratic figures. But on election day, the opposite was shown. The people of California, known as one of the most liberal states in the U.S.A., voted to strip potential labor rights from working class citizens and to extend the profits of Uber, Lyft, and other large gig companies. Why?
An ad campaign is an understatement for what Lyft and other app companies put together. The coalition of gig based businesses launched an information flood of over $200 million. It topped any spending for a single ballot measure in U.S. history, and had the infrastructure of a congressional campaign despite it being for a referendum. The slogan was simple and admittedly, catchy. “Yes on 22”. It was plastered everywhere. Youtube, Facebook, major news channels. If you lived in California, you couldn’t escape the messaging.
But how can ballot referendum ads be seen as democratic erosion? The problem is in the massive spending difference between the two ad campaigns. On the side of Uber, Lyft, and other apps, the “Yes on 22” campaign totaled 200+ million dollars. The sides of unions, labor, and the democratic party? A mere 10% of that at $20 million. In the end, this money in politics shows the same effect of Putin’s media control. Scott Gehlbach describes the way that Russian media is set up in his piece “Reflections on Putin and the Media”. Putin doesn’t influence every media outlet in Russia, only the ones that reach the greatest number of Russians, such as the 3 largest TV networks. The lopsided media coverage creates an information environment that is heavily conductive to state power. Similarly, the “Yes on 22” campaign had an overwhelming influence on media consumption. While it did not dominate every media platform, the largest ones reaching the most Californians were completely flooded with “vote yes” messaging. Youtube, Facebook, Reddit, and major news channels all displayed constant advertising for the Uber-backed movement and very little for the opposition by comparison. The average voter watched national news focused on the presidential election and didn’t do independent research on ballot reforms. This means that their interaction with proposition 22 discourse was mainly Uber and Lyft’s messaging campaign. So while Putin creates an uneven information plane by controlling what popular media outlets say, Lyft and others create the environment by using targeted ads since most voters have little knowledge of proposition 22, and national media rarely covers it. This blurs Dahl’s conception of the right to alternate sources that he lays out in his ideal version of a democracy. While there is nothing to stop the average voter from reading an article about voting no, the reality of niche topics like ballot measures is that voters do not pursue information about them. Due to that fact, the massive campaign that Uber and Lyft put out creates a drowning effect for Californian voters. Not just are they only presented why they should “vote yes”, but fear tactics from these companies also make it even harder for the voter to make a nuanced decision. Common “Yes on 22” ads stated that voting “no” would “shut down Uber and Lyft”, increase unemployment, and made it seem like a yes vote was in favor of labor rights.
In the end, it worked for the gig companies. It worked so well, in fact, that people who voted yes are coming out to say they did not even realize what they were voting for. The Washington Post talked to a voter who said she felt deceived, and thought voting yes would “help the drivers”. She now knows the apps were “ just trying to save their own pockets.” With how much Uber, Lyft, and others brute forced their messaging into the California public, it is safe to say this voter’s experience is not unique.
A common counterargument to the democratic erosion viewpoint is that Uber and Lyft played by the rules. They simply had more money to invest in advertisements and therefore were able to promote their cause to the voters more than the opposition. They didn’t pay off any media outlets, nor do anything illegal. The idea is wrong due to the conflation between capitalism and democracy. While many associate the two together, considering socialist/communist states as dictatorships and capitalist states as democratic, the reality is that they are separate. It was legal and capitalistic to buy an extreme amount of ads and messaging, but it still inhibits America’s democracy. Voters were not presented with clear alternate sources and points of view in their discourse over proposition 22. They were constantly bombarded with pro yes messaging filled with fear tactics and manipulative wording that made it seem like the Yes vote was not only pro business, but also pro labor. It ended in voters not only voting against their preferred party’s platform, but even voting without knowing what they were voting for. This type of manipulation cannot occur in a healthy democracy, capitalistic or otherwise.
The reason that this is so dangerous for America’s democracy is the precedent it sets. Lyft’s chief policy officer said that the proposition 22 framework can be “replicated and can be scaled”. Uber and other gig based companies found out they could manipulate voters to vote for their preferred policy, and are already looking towards Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as potential targets for a similar campaign. The point is, this type of corporate meddling is not over. Uber and Lyft will no doubt look to lower labor rights by democratic manipulation, and voters have to be aware of their strategies.