Need a ride to the polls? Amid a court ban, Detroiters giving free lifts

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Funeral homes nationwide, including in Detroit, are offering voters free rides to election sites. (Shutterstock)

There’ll be no family hours, funerals or repasts at Clora Funeral Home on Election Day. Instead, the Detroit morticians will use their fleet of luxury limousines to shuttle city residents to the polls. 

Clora, a Detroit family business with three locations, is among a number of funeral homes, bus companies and bike-sharing services nationwide getting in on getting out the vote. 

An estimated one-third of Motor City residents are carless, a fact more prevalent among the city’s low-income residents, according to University of Michigan researchers.  That, combined with the city’s limited public transportation, a pandemic, delayed mail service and a recent court ruling banning paid rides to election sites, makes getting the vote out more critical this year.

Michigan is also a battleground state where every ballot counts. In 2016, Donald Trump won the state by just 10,704 votes. 

Major Clora, owner of the Clora Funeral Home, said his business first participated in the transportation initiative in the 2016 presidential election, hauling hundreds of Detroiters to and from polling sites. There will be fewer passengers in the back seats of their vehicles this year because of COVID-19, but the funeral home will have at least 15 limos, Mercedes sprinters and sedans in service on Nov. 3.

The National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association hopes to provide rides for up to 300,000 voters across the country, including in Detroit, comparable to the service it provided for the 2008 and 2012 elections. 

The program primarily targets people 55 and older, but the association says funeral homes won’t turn down ride requests from younger voters.

Organizations offering free rides come amid heightened fears of voter suppression, and a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling Thursday that reinstated Michigan’s ban on paid voter transportation for the November election.

“Our ancestors went through too much for us not to vote,” said Clora. “If ever there was a time to vote, now is the time.”

Many eligible voters don’t vote due to lack of access to transportation, according to recent studies. Almost a third of young people polled cited transportation as a reason they didn’t vote in the 2016 election, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found. Fifteen percent of surveyed youth said that lack of transportation to the polls was a “major factor” for not voting;  the rate was much higher for young people of color — 38 percent said transportation played a role in their not voting.

The Detroit Bus Co., a private charter service, transported 70 voters two years ago, to polling places in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park, cities that owner Andy Didorosi said traditionally suffer from voter access issues and low turnout. This year he’s hoping volunteer drivers transport “a few hundred” from Thursday through Nov. 3. Amid the pandemic, his fleet of colorful, refurbished school buses, typically for hire for tours and weddings will still go unused. Instead, he’s recruiting volunteers to use their own vehicles to move voters to the polls.

“We’ve got a transportation problem in our city,” said Didorosi, who’s also a city transit commissioner. “COVID makes that 50,000 times worse.”

Thursday’s Sixth Circuit ruling prohibits voter advocacy organizations from paying for transportation, upholding an 1895 law. It’s a move that Didorosi calls “another form of voter suppression,” but means that his drivers won’t be compensated as normal. 

SAGE Metro Detroit, a nonprofit advocacy group for LGBTQ seniors, is offering free rides to Metro Detroit voters for the first time this year. Voters can hitch a ride to polling places, a clerk’s office or dropbox, or anywhere related to voting. 

“This is a contentious election but we want to make sure every person has their voice heard,” said Emell Adolphus of SAGE, who noted that the service is particularly crucial during a pandemic when the new early voting procedures can be confusing.

SAGE’s service targets disenfranchised adults over 50, Adolphus said. “This group has the most trouble digitally and they’re the ones who really need help.” 

Detroit’s MoGo bikes are free on Nov. 3 for those who prefer two-wheelers to get to the polls. Riders can use the bikes for an hour on Tuesday. (Shutterstock)

For those who prefer two-wheelers, Detroit’s MoGo is making its bikes available for free on Nov. 3 for voters to get to the polls. Riders can use the bike-share for an hour on Tuesday.

Days before the ban, ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber were offering discounted rides to the voting sites. Thursday’s ruling means that’s now illegal. Representatives for Lyft didn’t return calls for comment.

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