As the pandemic shakes up how we vote, Santa Cruz County has rolled out something new, a mobile voting center. Called the “VoteMobile,” it has been cruising through the county since mid-October, bringing voting directly to residents. Not only is the VoteMobile serving those who can’t venture far from their homes due to COVID-19, it’s also helping those who lost their homes in the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
The VoteMobile 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.
“A lot of people have many questions,” said Elizabeth Perez, who helps run the VoteMobile. “Some people are just so ecstatic to have us around.”
Perez and her two teammates have the VoteMobile setup perfected, from quickly opening a canopy, which provides shade for four private 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 168 precincts fill up a cabinet. If they run out, a big printer can serve up the right ballot on demand. The Vote Mobile is essentially the county’s elections office on wheels, offering everything from voting to assistance in Spanish.
Kathy Cirillo celebrated as she dropped off her mail-in ballot via the VoteMobile when it was stationed at Garfield Park Village, an apartment complex for seniors, on October 22.
"It's fun. I've been very excited about voting, especially this time, and I think it went very smoothly,” Cirillo said.
This new mobile voting center has also visited farmers markets, a homeless services center and communities ravaged by recent wildfire.
On October 21, the VoteMobile was parked in front of La Posada Retirement Community. That’s where Agnes
Huff, 29, a veteran, stopped by to cast her ballot via the VoteMobile. Huff lost her home on Swanton Road in the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
“It's completely burned down, along with probably at least 90 percent of the homes in Swanton and Last Chance,” Huff said.
Among the million things on her mind was voting.
“I mean I wanted to make sure that I could still get out there and make sure my voice was heard...yeah, absolutely, it was definitely a concern,” Huff said.
Luckily for Huff, her mail was held at the Davenport Post Office. But that wasn’t the case for everyone. The wildfire destroyed more than 900 homes in Santa Cruz County. 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 they thought their ballots would be 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 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.
“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. As of Monday, October 26, more than 500 people have used the VoteMobile, 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 while it was parked at La Posada, where she lives. La Posada is typically a polling place, but COVID-19 changed that.
“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 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.”
The VoteMobile will continue travelling around Santa Cruz County through Election Day.
Click here for the schedule.