Stanley Shackelford needed a ride. 

Like many Houstonians in this car-centric city, 61-year-old Shackelford doesn’t actually have easy access to a car. And on Election Day, that meant he didn’t have easy access to voting for the city’s next mayor. 

So he called Rideshare2Vote, a nonprofit organization that matches prospective voters like Shackelford with a group of volunteers who drive residents to the polls. Think of it as a pop-up Uber app for democracy. And shortly after 9 a.m., a volunteer in a little red sedan pulled up outside Shackelford’s apartment complex in Brays Oaks, to drive him the 0.7 miles to the nearest polling place, at Milne Elementary School.

The ride took all of five minutes each way. And the volunteer, Tim Janssen, waited another 15 minutes in the car while Shackelford cast his ballot. It was easy and convenient – two words that cannot always be used to describe voting access in this city. 

Tim Janssen shakes hands with Stanley Shackelford on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. Janssen picked up and drove Shackelford to the polls through an app called RideShare2Vote. (Annie Mulligan for Houston Landing)

I’ve spent a lot of time this fall writing about voting access, and the need to have the composition of Houston’s full electorate represented in the folks who turn out to vote. In an ideal world, the people who choose who our mayor is would be a perfect reflection of the people who live in Houston. But we know that likely voters are, on average, whiter, wealthier and older than Houston as a whole. And we also know that that disparity only grows wider in years like this, when there are no national races on the ballot, and overall turnout dips to only a fraction of the rate we see in presidential and midterm years. (We do all know that, right? If not, go ahead and read these two columns from earlier this fall.)

In so many situations, voter turnout comes down to access and ease. 

“All of those trends hold up pretty well here,” says David McClendon, a data scientist at the data-science consulting firm January Advisors. In a recent deep dive into voting patterns across the Greater Houston area’s voting precincts, called Mapping The Vote, McClendon was able to uncover a strong link between residents’ access to cars, and the voting trends in their neighborhoods. 

“We looked at the percentage of people who have access to a vehicle in their household, according to Census data, and that’s one we hadn’t looked at before,” says McClendon. “But it stuck out to us: People with easy access to a car are able to get to the polls.”

In Gulfton, for instance, voter turnout is often significantly lower than the Houston area as a whole. While 59.9 percent of eligible voters across Greater Houston cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, the rate was only 38.4 percent in Gulfton, a diverse, high-poverty neighborhood in the city’s southwest side, often referred to as Houston’s Ellis Island. The same discrepancy is seen in other, lower-turnout, elections: In November 2021’s municipal election, 7.7 percent of Greater Houston’s eligible adults voted; in Gulfton, turnout was only 3.2 percent. 

And in Gulfton, 11 percent of households don’t have access to a vehicle, compared with 5 percent across the region as a whole. Similar patterns emerge in McClendon’s data when examining other low-turnout areas, like Denver Harbor, where 8 percent of households have no vehicle access, and Third Ward where nearly one in three residents don’t have access to a vehicle. 

“If you don’t have a car, voting takes a hit,” says Sarah Kovich, the founder of Rideshare2Vote. So since 2018, her organization has returned to Harris County for every single election, in an effort to “disrupt” the status quo, and enable a wider swath of Houston voters to cast their ballots. 

“There are all these barriers to voting,” says Kovich. “But if someone offers to pick you up at your house, take you a mile or three miles – or however far it is – wait for you, and return you home, there’s something empowering about that.”

And that empowerment extends not just to the people hailing a ride; it also has an effect on the drivers. 

“I have my selfless reasons, and I have my selfish reasons for doing this,” Shackelford’s driver, Janssen, told me on Tuesday after he’d dropped Shackelford back at his apartment. “My selfless reasons are it’s helpful to other people and it’s empowering to other people. My selfish reasons are, it helps me cope with something that normally causes me a lot of anxiety.”

Janssen began his day Tuesday by dropping off his two young children at day care and voting in person, along with his wife. It feels good, he says, to perform his civic duty. But it also feels as though he could do more. So he searched his phone screen for people in need of a ride.

“If you don’t do anything, and you’re just nail-biting around the news all day, you get this sense of either you’re responsible for all of it or none of it, and you live or die by what the result is,” he says. “When you do this, when you’re taking action, and you’re encouraging people to vote, you’re also able to put into perspective what your role is in the process.”

His day started off a bit slower than he’d planned after one of his morning rides asked to be rescheduled to the evening hours. Tuesday was Janssen’s second time volunteering – following a shift during last year’s midterm elections – and he’s better prepared now for all the waiting the effort takes. 

“In terms of rides, it depends on the election, and our numbers vary with general turnout,” says Kovich, who orchestrated Rideshare2Vote initiatives in 10 states on Tuesday. “As you can imagine, in 2020, we were providing hundreds of rides. This election, when the turnout might be 10 percent of that, it could only be 15 or 20 rides. It could be 100.”

Rideshare2Vote isn’t the only game in town, of course. Houston’s mass transit provider, METRO, offered free rides to the polls throughout early voting and on Election Day. But not everyone who needs to vote is able to make their way easily and safely to a bus stop, and while METROLift also offers free rides on Election Day for voters with disabilities, these riders must subscribe to the service ahead of time, limiting game-time decisions.

Janssen notes that the folks he’s shuttled to voting precincts over the past couple years often have mobility issues. And his door-to-door service removes one last barrier to access. 

That’s helpful. The more you dive into the data, like the maps created by McClendon and his colleagues, through support from the Houston Endowment, the more one, irrefutable truth crystallizes: Houston’s low voter turnout isn’t entirely driven by motivation issues; it’s driven by access issues. And those issues can be curbed through the work of nonprofits like Rideshare2Vote, their volunteers, like Janssen, and a consensus that – as Janssen says – we all have a part to play in removing these barriers, as well as a consensus that a city that votes in strong numbers is a stronger city. 

Voter Stanley Shackelford casts his vote at an elementary school in his neighborhood on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. (Annie Mulligan for Houston Landing)

Rideshare2Vote will offer its services next month when Houston voters return to the polls for the Dec. 9 runoff election. While Metro is not yet able to confirm whether it plans to do the same, it appears likely; the bus line has consistently provided free rides to run-offs in the past. 

For Shackelford, his journey to the polls Tuesday was a joyous one. 

“It’s important for me to vote,” he says after returning to Janssen’s car with a wide grin. “These are issues that are important to our city and they’re issues that affect me.”

Houston Endowment is a financial supporter of the Houston Landing. Houston Endowment had no influence on decisions related to the reporting and publishing of this article. The Landing’s ethics policy and list of financial supporters are available online. 

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...