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There are many reasons why Americans don't vote, but one is simple inconvenience: If a polling place is hard to reach, with long lines, it's less likely every eligible voter will use it. In Idaho, election officials are trying to solve the problem with a mobile polling center that travels to voters instead.
The unit works essentially like any other polling location, using an optical scan system that securely records votes.
For two weeks prior to the presidential election, the mobile voting unit will travel to the biggest employers in the Boise area, letting employees come downstairs and vote early at lunch or on a break. The week before the election, it will sit at a busy intersection in downtown Boise.
"It will stand out because it's sitting out in the open, drawing attention to it, encouraging people to vote," says Phil McGrane, chief deputy at the Ada County Clerk's Office in Boise. "We want somebody who's walking by to go get lunch to say, 'I didn't realize I could vote,' pop in and vote, and go on their way."
On Election Day, the county's data suggests that almost half of voters visit polls after work, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., compounding the extra surge of voters during a presidential election. "It's not just that everyone's showing up on Election Day, it's the fact that they all show up at about the same time on Election Day," says McGrane. "This is where we want to try to give people an alternative."
People can also vote early with absentee ballots and at other early polls, but the new mobile unit will help provide more options. In a small town called Kuna, for example, voters would have had to travel to Boise if they wanted to vote early in the past; the mobile unit will park at a local grocery store for a day, so it's easier to reach.
The center will also let people vote next to work, something that they couldn't typically do on Election Day. If someone works downtown, they can vote there, rather than having to go home to vote in their own precinct.
The unit, a simple trailer, is also relatively cheap. "It has two windows, just like you'd think of a food truck, that pop open," says McGrane. Voters come up to a window, get a ballot instead of a taco, and then vote in a cardboard voting booth set up under a pop-up tent next to the truck. When they finish, they deposit their ballot at the second window.
"All the important equipment and security components, including some of our election staff, will be inside the trailer, whereas the voters will vote and use the resources outside the trailer," says McGrane.
The unit works essentially like any other polling location, using an optical scan system that securely records votes. The main difference is that is has to remotely connect to the state's voter registration system to ensure that someone hasn't already voted elsewhere. Officials are working with cybersecurity experts to make sure the system is safe to use.
On Election Day, the mobile unit will stand by in case of an unexpected disaster—which is actually the reason it was originally created. In 2013, an incident near a school forced the school to close its polls during an election, and the county realized that it needed a contingency plan.
McGrane hopes that the program may expand to include more trucks, and inspire other cities to offer similar mobile polls. "It's fairly simple in its design," he says. "That helps us to be able to replicate it more in the future."