Does federal law cited by Tarrant County judge really ban free transit rides to polls?

In our Reality Check stories, Star-Telegram journalists dig deeper into questions over facts, consequences and accountability. Send story ideas to

Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare this week cited federal law to support his opposition to reimbursing Trinity Metro for free fares on primary Election Day. But, does that law actually prohibit free rides to the polls?

The County Commissioners Court on Wednesday voted down the measure along party lines. It would have reimbursed the transit agency $10,000 for the rides. Trinity Metro announced Thursday that it still plans to offer free rides to polling sites on primary Election Day, March 5.

O’Hare, a Republican, cited U.S. Code 18, section 597, which states that anyone who “makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate” could face a fine and up to one year in prison.

That statute, however, does not prohibit free bus and train rides to polling stations, according to electoral law experts consulted by the Star-Telegram.

“Providing free or discounted transportation to the polls has been understood to not violate section 597,” said UCLA law professor Rick Hasen in an email exchange. “Uber and Lyft, for example, have been providing free or discounted rides.”

Michael Morley, a law professor at Florida State University, said the law is meant to prohibit vote buying.

“So long as the transportation is not provided as part of a quid pro quo exchange for votes, but instead only seeks to reduce barriers to voting, it is fine,” he wrote in an email.

One way to eliminate legal concerns over the issue, he said, would be to offer free fares to all transit riders on Election Day, “regardless of whether they promise to vote or actually vote once they arrive at the polling place.”

O’Hare also cited a decision in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin — “not exactly a bastion of conservatism,” he said — in which the county’s chief legal officer argued that the concept violated state law.

A 2022 resolution to provide free transit to Milwaukee County polling stations failed by one vote. County Board Supervisor Peter Burgelis, who authored the resolution, called its failure “unfortunate” in a phone interview.

“That resolution specifically, if you look at the language, pointed to multiple studies that identified transportation or lack of access to transportation as one of the most significant reasons why people who want to vote don’t,” he said.

Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun was not available for comment, but in May 2023, her office argued that a free ride to the polls constituted “a thing of value,” according to media reports. The office argued that Wisconsin state law prohibits providing goods or services of value in order to get someone to vote.

O’Hare called this “a precedent here from a county saying it’s wrong” during Wednesday’s session.

Tarrant County has reimbursed Trinity Metro for free rides to polls in previous years via the Election Transportation Program, which began in 2019. In 2020, the county reimbursed Trinity Metro $20,000 for free rides to the polls. In 2022, the agreement was for “an amount not to exceed $30,000.”

A spokesperson for Trinity Metro told the Star-Telegram on Thursday that the agency planned to offer the rides with or without county funding this year.

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit system will offer free rides to polling stations in Dallas, Collin, Denton, Ellis and Rockwall counties on March 5. A spokesperson for DART told the Star-Telegram that the transit agency does not receive governmental reimbursement for these fares.

Following Wednesday’s session, commissioner Manny Ramirez, a Republican, told the Star-Telegram that people in his district would not receive the benefit of this service from Trinity Metro and thus should not have to fund it with their tax dollars.

Trinity Metro ridership is indeed low in Ramirez’s district, but SMU political science professor Calvin Jillson said there is an “abstract” benefit to his constituents in the implementation of the democratic process.

“It would be a wonderful world if everyone saw the benefit of encouraging everyone to participate in the process,” Jillson said in a phone interview. “But you’re not going to want to do that if you think those bus riders are going to vote heavily for the other side.”