An extra item may have slipped into your weekly grocery delivery: a campaign ad. It’s a dubious bonus from Instacart, the San Francisco-based tech company that lets customers order groceries by app.

“As a valued Instacart customer, we hope you’ll take a moment to learn more about how Prop. 22 supports the best possible shopper experience in California,” read the firm’s email, signed “The Instacart Team.”

California voters are used to being lobbied by corporate behemoths. In props past, the oil industry, Big Pharma, plastic producers and kidney dialysis clinics have spent millions trying to sway voters.

But the gig economy titans bankrolling Proposition 22 — which would allow them to keep treating drivers as independent contractors rather than employees — have a secret weapon: your data profile.

If you’ve ever downloaded the Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Postmates or Doordash apps or registered for their services, the companies possess your phone number, email and credit card info — not to mention your food preferences and travels.

Contact information alone is a goldmine for any election campaign, said Sean McMorris, a policy consultant for transparency watchdog Common Cause. In any other context, “a small nonprofit or the average Joe” behind a campaign would have to shell out thousands of dollars for such a list. 

To date Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and Doordash report more than $4.3 million in non-monetary contributions for Prop. 22. That would include email blasts, mass text messaging and within-app campaign material. (As the Los Angeles Times reported, last week Uber customers in California were required to “confirm” a bit of Yes on 22 messaging before hailing their next ride.)

That’s still not much for this record-shattering ballot campaign. The Yes on 22 campaign has collected more than $187 million, mostly from gig companies. 

“It is kind of a new frontier in the sense that it’s a customer base that could become a voting base,” said Jessica Levinson, professor at Loyola Law School and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. 

The yes campaign said costs of that messaging have been filed as contributions with state regulators. 

In August, opponents complained to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, contending Uber and Lyft had violated state transparency laws via emails inviting app-users to “learn more” about Prop. 22. Those emails had been sent after a superior court judge ordered the companies to begin classifying drivers as employees — an order later put on hold by an appellate court

Yes on 22 campaign’s lawyer, Steven Lucas, argued that the emails were sent “for reasons independent of the companies’ advocacy in support of Yes on 22.” Even so, he said, “all non-monetary contributions associated with these email blasts” had been filed with the state “out of an abundance of caution.”

The commission said it’s investigating. 

Former commission co-chair Dan Schnur said that it’s common for political interests to blur the line between business-as-usual outreach and electioneering. County governments, public agencies and local elected officials are often accused of disclosure violations.

“The only thing that’s unique here,” he said, “are the stakes.” 

Via the Post It, CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher shares frequent updates from the (socially distanced) 2020 campaign trail.


Californians — what to know before you vote

In addition to the high-stakes Trump vs. Biden presidential match, the 2020 ballot asks you whether to raise property taxes, expand rent control, ban cash bail, further protect consumer data privacy and resurrect affirmative action. It also will determine if the state Legislature remains in the control of a gigamajority of Democrats, and if the “blue wave” that swept away half of GOP-held congressional seats has receded. Confused about anything? Our best-on-the-market voter guide has got you covered.


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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...