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VoteMobile Helps California Wildfire Victims And Seniors Cast Their Ballots

A new mobile voting center brings voting directly to residents in Santa Cruz County, Calif. Here, the VoteMobile is parked at Garfield Park Village, an apartment complex for seniors.
Erika Mahoney
A new mobile voting center brings voting directly to residents in Santa Cruz County, Calif. Here, the VoteMobile is parked at Garfield Park Village, an apartment complex for seniors.

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."

Copyright 2021 KAZU. To see more, visit KAZU.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.