SAN FRANCISCO — Uber and Twitter are not in the business of elections. But they are involved in U.S. elections, and in the future they are looking to insert themselves further into the process.
At the first-ever Global Election Technology summit in San Francisco this week, public policy analysts from both companies spoke about how they’re working to increase civic engagement and participation.
Twitter has found itself pulled more and more into politics in the past several elections. The platform has pulled in journalists, elected officials, everyday citizens, activists and, more recently, U.S. presidents. But Tom Tarantino, a senior public policy manager at the social media giant, said the company is more than comfortable with its position in politics.
In fact, it’s embracing it.
In the 2016 election cycle, Twitter livestreamed presidential debates and both major party conventions. In the recent French presidential election, it further refined its tools by hooking up streaming video with user content.
“Imagine watching a debate not just by yourself, but also seeing what people are talking about,” Tarantino said at the event. “You’re watching the video, at the same time you’re watching every reporter that you follow tweet about the debate, you’re watching all your friends talk about it, you’re hearing perspectives from both sides of the aisle that you’d never hear before if you’d been in your little bubble.”
Next year’s U.S. midterm elections — already gathering more attention than the typical midterms — will become a target for Twitter to further evolve its civic engagement strategy. Tarantino said the company is working on several ideas, mostly around the concept of helping to inform voters about the issues and candidates.
“In 2018 we’re gonna see a much more holistic push around the election … everything from ‘I registered’ emojis all the way up to livestreaming and coverage of election events,” Tarantino said. “But also we need to start thinking about how do we develop a more organic political experience inside the Twitter app? There’s sort of a lifecycle to someone’s political engagement. You get informed about an issue, you need to connect to other people, other stakeholders on that issue, and then you give them something to do.”
Uber’s foray into the elections-civic engagement continuum is narrower than Twitter’s. At the event, Tarantino spoke about the need for tech companies to stick to what they’re best at and not chase down every whimsy crossing their path.
So Uber is focusing on its core service: transportation. In the last election cycle, the company worked on tools to get drivers and riders to the polls on election day. The company partnered with Google, which had already built tools to help voters find their polling places and become educated about their choices on the ballot.
That effort was simply about helping people get to the polls on their own dime. But there are some at the company, Senior Public Policy Associate Dave Barmore said at the conference, who are interested in exploring a future where Uber pays for those rides.
“There was a very healthy, robust conversation around — could Uber itself look to fund rides to the polls?” Barmore said. “And we had a very long conversation with our legal team, and there are many legal complexities and issues that arise when a company is looking to fund rides. I know that that was a big point of discussion with a lot of folks internally, they wanted to become more involved on that front, and so I think that will continue.”
Meanwhile, there are more certain directions the company is headed in. In the upcoming special election for Georgia’s sixth congressional district, a hotly contested race many have framed as a chance to test whether Democrats can capitalize on the president’s unpopularity, Barmore said at least one “progressive” group is considering paying to help get some voters to the polls.
“We have to be careful as being a corporation that we aren’t taking sides, obviously, in the election,” he said. “So for this instance, we have this political group that is doing this on their own accord. So what they do is they receive this (promotional) code and put their own funds toward it. And then it’s up to this outside party for how they use it. And we make it clear to this outside party that they’re simply utilizing our product and in no way is this an endorsement from Uber, how they disseminate this code.”
Then there’s Uber Central, a new product Barmore said the company is starting to pitch to potential customers. He described Central as a dashboard where companies, political campaigns and other groups can request rides, pre-arrange them, fund them concurrently.
“Gone are the days of — you’re a campaign, and you’re going door to door and you have all the medical boxes checked off, who needs a ride to the poll, if they need a wheelchair-accessible vehicle,” he said. “Gone are the days of getting that large cargo van parked at a certain intersection and then having those rides coordinated through that. Now you have a much more efficient technological means of pre-arranging rides for those who need it.”
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.