TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. – There’s a lot riding on who turns out to vote in the 2018 midterms and polling places have been busy so far in Tompkins County. Reporter Devon Magliozzi spent the morning riding to the polls with Tompkins voters on a Gadabout bus to see what obstacles to voting locals face and what motivated them to cast ballots this election.
Gadabout is one of several Tompkins organizations coordinating free rides to the polls this year. A free shuttle is bringing Cornell University voters to off-campus polling locations, a volunteer effort dubbed Parents2Polls Tompkins is providing childcare and rides, the Tompkins County Democratic Committee is transporting voters of any party, and ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft are offering discounts.
Gadabout was on pace by midday to bring about 60 people to 17 different polling places.
On an average day, the fleet of buses is busy bringing people with disabilities or over the age of 60 to appointments and events throughout the county. The on-call service, which partners with TCAT to meet the public agency’s paratransit needs, relies on a combination of full-time and volunteer drivers to improve accessibility in Tompkins. In past election years, drivers have brought regular riders to polls by request.
This Election Day, though, Gadabout opened its buses to the general public, made rides free of charge and coordinated a publicity campaign to welcome all voters facing transportation challenges.
Director Kristen Wells said it just made sense to her to open the buses to all voters. “If we’re in the area, why not let neighbors or anyone facing barriers to transportation get on the bus too?” she said.
Wells said she and the Gadabout Board quickly reached the decision to make Election Day rides free because “getting people to the polls is our goal.” When she asked volunteers to step in to meet increased demand while keeping costs down, she said every driver who wasn’t already volunteering at a polling place offered to help.
Peter Marks is one such driver. Marks has volunteered as a Gadabout driver for 11 years, since retiring from the biology department at Cornell. He said he started volunteering because he likes driving big vehicles and exploring the backroads of the county. While he typically drives on Thursdays, he said he jumped at the opportunity to help bring voters to the polls.
“Helping other people vote is a small but important part of being a good citizen,” he said.
Marks said he never skips an election, “including the minor ones – that’s part of the deal.” But today, knowing he would be driving for several hours, he made sure to vote first thing in the morning.
“I was trying to be the first voter in Caroline, but my neighbor beat me to it,” Marks said.
In Freeville, Marks pulled the bus off of Bill’s Way to pick up Ralph Shoemaker. Shoemaker, who uses a walker and doesn’t drive, said, “I’m voting to get a balance of power.” The lifelong New Yorker pointed out the long-defunct chemical plant where his father once worked as we drove to the Etna Fire Department. “The major problem these days is the economy,” he said.
Shoemaker is a regular Gadabout rider and planned to pay the regular fare for his Election Day ride. He said he appreciated being able to save the $6 for another purpose, though.
Outside the Etna Fire Department, voters without cars said they found alternative ways to get out to vote during the morning rain. One walked, saying she could have taken a TCAT bus but doesn’t live too far away. Another said he usually walks, but took a ride from a neighbor to stay dry. Overwhelmingly, voters exiting while the Gadabout bus waited for Shoemaker said they drove themselves.
The same was true about 15 miles away in Newfield. Before heading to the Newfield Fire Hall, Marks stopped to pick up two voters from the Newfield Garden Apartments, Cathy Messing and Kathie Gardner.
Messing and Gardner described themselves as “diehard voters.” They said in past years they relied on a daughter and daughter-in-law respectively for Election Day rides in the past. Messing said when she heard Gadabout was offering free rides to vote, she posted a flyer in her apartment building and told all her neighbors. That’s how Gardner found out about the service.
“My daughter used to take me, but I’m trying to be more independent now,” Gardner said. She thought about voting by absentee ballot but said she liked the sociality of going to her polling place. “Voting in Newfield is like Olde Home Day,” she said. “You see everyone you know!”
Messing was surprised that more of her neighbors did not come on the Gadabout bus. A couple of them, she said, planned to carpool to the fire station, but she said many others told her they didn’t plan to vote.
At the polling place, though, many of her Newfield neighbors shared her enthusiasm.
“As long as I can drive, I can – and will – get here,” said one Newfield resident.
For those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t drive themselves to the polls, Gadabout and similar services made voting in Tompkins more accessible. “We’re trying to be efficient with the buses that we already have out there,” Wells said.