Problem: Residents waiting in long lines on Election Day.
Solution: Bring early voting to street corners around town, using mobile ‘food truck voting.
Long lines, no parking, no time. Some of the most common excuses for not voting were taken out of the equation last fall when Ada County, Idaho introduced “food truck voting,” making voting as easy as ordering lunch.
In last November’s election, the county tried out mobile voting using a converted food truck, with much success. Although the county offers four locations for early voting, the converted food trailer-turned-voting center could be moved all around the 1,060-square mile county to hit highly populated areas in the weeks before the presidential election. With more than 425,000 residents, the county is Idaho’s most heavily populated.
County election workers used previous voting data to determine the best locations — where the longest lines had been in past elections — to park and attract a high concentration of voters, including spots near some of the county’s largest employers and hospitals. The trailer was available on Election Day for backup, in case any polling places had any emergencies, but wasn’t need that day.
In 2016, 47,740 voted early, with an overall turnout of 75 percent. Of those early voters, 5,456 voted at the food truck voting trailer.
The idea for the mobile voting unit first came about as “an idea for how we could respond in an emergency,” said Phil McGrane, chief deputy clerk, Ada County Clerk’s Office, who oversees elections in the county. “We had a school that was a polling place go on lockdown once. We realized then that we needed to be able to respond quickly in an emergency.”
And the food truck idea?
“This will sound odd, but the concept came from my hobby of competitive barbecue,” McGrane said. “We use a similar trailer-tent setup when we compete. The design makes it both cost-effective and easy to move around. We can set up or tear down in 20 minutes. It makes it very mobile.”
The county purchased the trailer from a local company that builds food trucks and vending trailers.
“They put the windows in and counters to fit our needs,” McGrane said, noting that the windows are a little lower in their truck compared to most food trucks, so that election workers can sit down and be eye-to-eye with voters
The trailer alone cost the county just over $20,000. The tents where voting booths are located adjacent to the trailer and graphics accounted for another $13,000. With all the computers and other equipment needed inside, the county spent between $50,000 to $60,000.
To get the word out about the early voting and let people know where the truck would be, the county sent out press releases, posted to social media and on the county web site.
“The places we worked with also helped spread the word in the region,” McGrane said. That included large employers like Hewlett Packard and Idaho Power. “Also, a big thing was our graphics,” he said. “They stand out. This was intentional and helped attract voters who were walking or driving by.”
When voters stepped up to the food truck, they could give their name, with election workers finding it on a computerized voter roll, and printing out a ballot. Voters could step over to cardboard voting booths set up in the tent adjacent to the food truck. As they exited, they slipped their ballots into a box with an optical scanner. The county hired a cybersecurity firm to ensure the mobile voting process was secure, McGrane said.
One of the biggest challenges for Ada County’s mobile voting was electricity. “We may end up paying a little more to add a battery system,” McGrane said. “That will free us up from using a generator. We initially tried to plug in where we went, but our power needs were too demanding.” The generator also proved to be loud, he noted.
Other things the county would reconsider include ordering a longer trailer. “We had some serious demand at some of the locations,” he said. “The concept proved to be extremely popular, which may have been our biggest challenge of all.”
Ada County uses the truck for other elections (they have about four a year) and for registering voters throughout the year.
Advice for other counties considering a similar concept? “Do it,” McGrane said. “If a county has a number of smaller towns spread out, it may be too expensive to set up in each town, but with this, you can easily travel between them and vote people on different days. I think this really helped provide greater access to some people.”