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:
We want to tell you about something that happened earlier today in Graham, N.C. A group of about 200, which included children and seniors, set out on a march to encourage people to vote. It was called the I Am Change march. The march began at an AME church and headed to the courthouse.
Unfortunately, at some point, chaos ensued. Law enforcement officers sprayed the marchers in the vicinity - at least, sprayed in the vicinity of the marchers with pepper spray. We do understand that some people were arrested. The Reverend Gregory Drumwright was one of the leaders of today's march, and he is with us now to tell us more.
Reverend Drumwright, thank you for joining us. How are you doing?
GREGORY DRUMWRIGHT: I am a bit shaken and torn, but I'm still alive.
MARTIN: I understand that you were arrested this afternoon. Is that true? Where are you now?
DRUMWRIGHT: We are just outside of the county jail waiting for the remainder of those who were also arrested with us to be released.
MARTIN: And what were you - why were you arrested?
DRUMWRIGHT: Oh, we were charged with failure to comply with - I'm sorry. Failure to disperse on command was the charge that I have received - failure to disperse on command.
MARTIN: And is in - is your - what is your response to that? Is that accurate?
DRUMWRIGHT: We were being imposed upon, and we were being confronted by the same law enforcement agencies that we had coordinated with to protect and serve us for a rally that we were permitted to have. We were being dispersed or forced to disperse in the midst of our peaceful protest.
We were to leave that rally in a - in just a few more minutes and head to the polls. This is something that we have worked on for the greater part of this month with the law enforcement agencies. And we begged them not to come in with militia force to oppress and suppress our march to the polls.
MARTIN: So let me - forgive me, you're saying you had a permit, and you had law enforcement - a law enforcement escort. Is that accurate?
DRUMWRIGHT: That is correct.
MARTIN: So what happened? How did that occur, that pepper spray, then, was deployed against the marchers? Why? What was the stated reason?
DRUMWRIGHT: We do not know. It is the practice of our organization, Justice 4 the Next Generation, to do things in community with the law enforcement. And we were meeting with the law enforcement throughout this month and asking them to not do what they essentially did.
This city - this is my home city. I live about 35 minutes away now, but this is where I was born and raised. This city has targeted people of color at disparaging rates, at disproportioning rates, for years. This sheriff was sued by the Obama administration. A federal court case was brought against the sheriff for arresting and imprisoning Black and brown people at a rate of 4 times to 1.
MARTIN: Forgive me, Reverend. I have to interrupt just because I've just received a copy of the statement by the City of Graham Police Department. It's their response to these events with their description of these events. It's quite lengthy, and I'm just reading through it as we are speaking. But as I understand it, the gist of it is that they're saying that you missed a deadline for permission to have a temporary road closure to accommodate the march.
I - and I'm seeing that they're saying that you were given a command to clear the roadway, that you didn't have the - a permit to use the roadway and that they say that they asked you to clear the roadway and that you didn't disperse in a timely fashion. And they say that is why they used pepper spray. They also say they didn't spray any individuals. They sprayed the ground. But they do acknowledge that they used pepper spray against...
MARTIN: ...Marchers. What's your response to that?
DRUMWRIGHT: My comment to that is, first of all, your listeners can refer to the Facebook video live feed of our event, which demonstrates that we were not in the road. We were actually on the courthouse sidewalk when their law enforcement agencies began to pepper spray our crowd. There were two events that happened, and this was the second of the two.
MARTIN: Before - and forgive me, Reverend, but before we let you go, though, do you think this was an effort to keep your group from getting to the polls to suppress voting? Or is - do you believe...
DRUMWRIGHT: I cannot say that that was what it was, but I can say that's what happened. There are people that did not get to vote today because they ended up in jail. There are people - yes.
MARTIN: Forgive me, reverend. I'm sure that we'll be talking more about this in the days ahead, so thank you for giving us this information just as soon as you were released. As we said, it's a developing story.
DRUMWRIGHT: Thank you.
MARTIN: That was the Reverend Gregory Drumright. He's a civil rights leader who led the I Am Change march that took place earlier today in Graham, N.C.
Reverend Drumwright, thank you so much for joining us.
DRUMWRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.