Surge Pricing for American Elections

On the night of June 1st, Uber disclosed an unprecedented $3.5 billion investment from the Saudi Arabian government. Aside from its stock ownership, the repressive kingdom also bought itself a seat on the company’s board of directors. That’s disturbing for many reasons, but what many people don’t realize is that this Saudi investment gives the kingdom an “Uber loophole” to influence American elections.

Citizens United opened the door for corporations to spend money to influence our elections, and Uber—like fellow car-hailing company Lyft—has been throwing money around in political battles. Just a few weeks ago, the two companies spent nine million dollars in a local election in Austin, Texas, as they fought to overturn a law requiring drivers to submit to fingerprint-based criminal background checks. It crushed the previous record for election spending in Austin seven-fold, and it could have bought five seats in the U.S. Congress in 2012.

Austin wasn’t Uber’s first fight—the company recently spent roughly $600,000 on a voter referendum in Seattle, nearly $700,000 in California, $300,000 in Washington, D.C., $200,000 in Maryland, and $70,000 in Oregon. It’s engaged fleets of lobbyists—250 by one count, nearly one-third more than Wal-Mart—in 45 of the nation’s 50 statehouses, and has invested heavily on multiple fronts in major U.S. cities, from New York City to L.A., Chicago to Atlanta.

Current federal law prohibits foreign governments, foreign-based companies, and people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents from contributing or spending money in connection with any federal, state, or local election. But there’s a loophole: they can launder the money through a U.S.-based corporation.

Fortunately, state and local governments can fight back by passing laws that prohibit foreign-influenced corporations like Uber from spending money in their elections. If the past is any guide, Uber and companies like it will continue to throw their weight around in our elections, regardless of who’s sharing the wheel.

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