District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman filed a lawsuit last week against Mayor Steve Adler arguing that the ballot language in Austin’s May 7 election on ridesharing ordinances was unclear and misleading to voters. The suit adds fire to one of the city’s most politically charged issues as newly passed legislation crafted by the City Council drove Uber and Lyft out of Austin last month.
Filed Thursday in the Travis County state District Court, the suit states that the outcome of the Proposition 1 election should be voided because the ballot language “misled the voters and omitted chief features of the amendment, distorting the true essence of the amendment,” reports the Austin American-Statesman.
The election came to be after City Council passed ordinances aiming to regulate ridesharing companies similar to the taxi industry, including mandatory fingerprint-base background checks for drivers and signage distinguishing ridesharing drivers from ordinary vehicles, among other requirements.
Though Uber and Lyft already conduct their own background checks, that do not include fingerprinting, the city pushed for FBI-based background checks. Dissatisfied with the new regulations, Uber and Lyft led a petition effort gathering more than 65,000 signatures opposing the new rules.
As a result, the city called an election. A vote for Prop 1 meant the new regulations would be repealed, while a vote against Prop 1 meant ridesharing drivers would have to comply with fingerprint-based background checks run through the FBI database, as well as other restrictions.
Despite an aggressive, $8.6 million campaign waged by Uber and Lyft, Prop 1 failed by 12 points, with 56 percent of voters rejecting the measure. Some blame the confusing ballot language, which most agreed could be easily misinterpreted.
The Statesman described the wording as being “hard to follow,” adding that it was “a dense, 60-word question,” while AustinInno called it straight up “confusing.”
Zimmerman is not the first to take legal action over the strangely worded ballot. Samantha Phelps, the manager of a hip dive bar in East Austin, also took issue with the ballot language, filing a petition in March requesting that the Texas Supreme Court intervene, the Austin Sentinel reported.
“The council falsely portrayed the proposed ordinance as something that only takes away and does not give,” Phelp argued in her court filing. “That portrayal could not be further from the truth… The approved ballot language is purposely skewed to persuade the public to vote against the proposition.”
The court denied the request to intervene.
At a council meeting on Thursday, Zimmerman stated that he was “deeply concerned” about how the process unfolded. “What I noticed from the campaign is that both sides were confused by the ballot language — the people for it and the people against it.”
Zimmerman’s attorney Jerad Najvar asked “that their complaint be consolidated with any other challenge to the same election to conform with a requirement under state law,” reports the Statesman, including the one previously filed by Phelps.
The city issued a statement saying that it stands by the ballot language, which it drafted. “The City Council respected the citizen-initiated petition process and voted to call a May election. The council made every effort to ensure that the ballot language fairly represents the petition’s intent.”
“The city prevailed in the pre-election lawsuit filed on this same topic, and is prepared to defend the actions it took as part of this election process,” it read.