The Santa Cruz County VoteMobile looks like a taco truck. But instead of tacos, you can order a ballot. The front of the trailer has two glass customer service windows. Let's just say you can't miss it driving around town. The trailer is brightly painted with an American Flag and the word "vote" written in giant letters on each side.
As early voters deal with long lines in some cities across the country, Santa Cruz, Calif., is trying to make it easier for residents to vote. The new mobile voting center is cruising throughout the county this election season. It serves those who can't venture far from their homes due to COVID-19. It's also helping people who recently lost their homes to wildfire.
Since mid-October, the VoteMobile has visited farmers markets, a homeless services center and communities ravaged by recent wildfire.
"Some people are just so ecstatic to have us around," said Elizabeth Perez, who helps run the VoteMobile. "And for them, it seems really convenient."
Perez and her two teammates have the VoteMobile setup perfected, from quickly opening a canopy, which provides shade for four private voting booths, to firing up the generator, which powers the VoteMobile. It's all connected to the county's election information management system.
Inside the trailer, pre-printed ballots for all of the county's 168 voting precincts fill up a cabinet. If they run out, a big printer can serve up the right ballot on demand. The VoteMobile is essentially the county's elections office on wheels, offering traditional voting in a booth, to ballot drop off for those who marked mail-in ballots, to voter assistance in Spanish.
On a recent hot and sticky Santa Cruz day, the VoteMobile was stationed at La Posada Retirement Community. Agnes Huff, 29, cast her ballot there via the VoteMobile.
"It feels good every time I vote," said Huff, who is a veteran.
Times have been tough for Huff as of late. Her home burned down in the CZU Lightning Complex fire, which was ignited by lightning in mid-August. The fire burned about 86,500 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, according to the state agency, Cal Fire.
Among the million things on Huff's mind was voting.
"I mean, I wanted to make sure that I could still get out there and make sure my voice was heard," Huff said. "Yeah, absolutely, it was definitely a concern."
The CZU Lightning Complex wildfire destroyed more than 900 homes in Santa Cruz County alone. For some residents, mail-in ballots couldn't be delivered, either because they did not provide a change of address, so the ballots came back to the elections office as undeliverable, or residents thought their ballots would be automatically forwarded, which isn't allowed in California.
"This community in Santa Cruz County, we pull for each other," Gail Pellerin, Santa Cruz County's chief elections official, said. "We want to make sure everybody has access to voting. You don't see the kinds of shenanigans that are going on in other counties, in other states here in Santa Cruz County because we really do believe in democracy and the importance of every voter having access to the ballot."
Pellerin has wanted a mobile voting center for years.
"And when the pandemic hit, I thought, 'Now is the perfect time,' " Pellerin said.
Little did she know, it would also be valuable for fire survivors, who now have the elections office coming to them.
"These are such amazing people," said Pellerin. "I mean, they are still in the throes of losing their home and figuring out where they're going next. And they're calling me saying, 'I want to make sure I can vote and get my ballot.' "
Voter registration is at a record number in Santa Cruz County according to Pellerin, and as of Monday, Oct. 26, more than 500 people have used the VoteMobile, from fire survivors to first-time voters and seniors like 86-year-old Bridget Stennes.
She dropped off her mail-in ballot into a slot on the side of the trailer while it was parked at La Posada, where she lives. La Posada is typically a polling place, but COVID-19 changed that because of health concerns related to many voters coming through a senior housing facility.
"I think it's wonderful. We need VoteMobiles everywhere. Makes it easy for people to vote," Stennes said. "Especially for the elderly, they are afraid of the virus and they're afraid to be out there to vote."
First-time voter Ian Ly, age 18, stopped by the VoteMobile with his mom. He said voting in a pandemic is interesting.
"Weird situation overall," Ly said. "It's a good thing that they have this outdoors. So I can vote safely and everyone else can vote safely."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In California, authorities have tried to reduce waiting times for those choosing to vote in person by encouraging people to vote by mail. In fact, all active registered voters in the state were supposed to receive a ballot in their mailboxes. But that wasn't possible for many residents who lost their homes to this year's record-setting wildfires in California, and that includes hundreds of people in Santa Cruz County, where officials are hoping a new mobile voting center can help. From member station KAZU, Erika Mahoney has this report.
ERIKA MAHONEY, BYLINE: The VoteMobile backs into a parking lot on the west side of Santa Cruz. It looks like a taco truck. But instead of tacos, you can order a ballot. Two glass customer service windows take up one side of the trailer. The rest is brightly painted with an American flag and the word vote in giant letters on each side. Let's just say you can't miss it.
ELIZABETH PEREZ: So we're going to get ready to pop up the canopy and then set up everything.
MAHONEY: Elizabeth Perez is one of three people running the VoteMobile. The team quickly opens the canopy, which provide shade for four private voting booths. A generator powers the VoteMobile. It's all connected to the county's election information management system. And inside the trailer, a big printer can serve up the right ballot on demand. Since mid-October, the VoteMobile has visited farmers markets, a homeless services center and communities ravaged by recent wildfire.
On a hot and sticky Santa Cruz day, the VoteMobile is parked in front of the La Posada retirement community.
AGNES HUFF: It feels good every time I vote.
MAHONEY: That's where 29-year-old Agnes Huff, a veteran, cast her ballot via the VoteMobile. Her home completely burned down in a recent wildfire that was sparked by lightning in mid-August. Among the million things on her mind was voting.
HUFF: I mean, I wanted to make sure that I could still get out there and make sure my voice was heard. And, yeah, absolutely. It was definitely a concern.
MAHONEY: The wildfire destroyed more than 900 homes in Santa Cruz County. For some residents, mail-in ballots couldn't be delivered, either because residents did not provide a change of address or they thought their election mail would be forwarded, which isn't allowed in California. Gail Pellerin is Santa Cruz County's chief elections official.
GAIL PELLERIN: My catchphrase was, you've lost your home. You're not going to lose your right to vote. So we wanted to give them every opportunity to plan and get a ballot.
MAHONEY: Pellerin wanted a mobile voting center for years. When the pandemic hit, she thought, now is the perfect time to do it. Little did she know it would also be valuable for fire survivors who, after going through so much, could have the elections office come to them.
PELLERIN: These are such amazing people. I mean, they are still in the throes of losing their home and figuring out where they're going next. And they're calling me saying, I want to make sure I can vote and get my ballot.
MAHONEY: More than 500 people have used the VoteMobile so far, from fire survivors to first-time voters and seniors like Bridget Stennes. She dropped off her mail-in ballot into a slot on the side of the trailer.
BRIDGET STENNES: I think it's wonderful. We need VoteMobiles everywhere so it makes it easy for people to vote.
MAHONEY: Voting on wheels where the polls come to you.
For NPR News, I'm Erica Mahoney in Santa Cruz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.