Shop, Have a Cookie, Vote 

Alameda County hopes to boost voter turnout by bringing the polling station to the people.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon two weeks before the election, a high-tech experiment in boosting voter turnout is taking place in an echo-y atrium triangulated by a Mrs. Fields Cookies, a Kay Jewelers, and an under-construction Florsheim shoe outlet. The staff of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters has camped out here at Newark's NewPark Mall to test a novel proposition: If voters won't go to the polls, maybe the polls should go to them.

In other words: They're letting people cast their ballots at the mall. The county's new mobile voter unit is composed of three clerks equipped with two electronic voting machines, which lets them turn any place with electricity into a de facto polling station. Over the last two weeks, they've made the rounds of East Bay shopping centers, BART stations, and college campuses, urging citizens to vote here and now.

Yet, despite a surfeit of American flags, stars-and-stripes bunting, and workers cheerfully shouting "Do you want to vote today?" at all who pass by, four hours at this mall have yielded a scant ten votes, of which several were cast by reporters hovering around to witness some 21st-century democracy in action. "Ten is good," clerk Theresa Nguyen says wryly. And that's true, when compared to the three votes they collected yesterday at Berkeley's Center for Independent Living.

No worries; this is an optimistic crew. They know most people have never heard of mobile voting. Plus, in only a few days, they've picked up valuable tips about how to court the unsuspecting voter. One is to put up a "Vote Here Today" sign so people won't mistake this for just another voter registration booth. The other is to avoid Walter.

Walter is an affable guy standing ten feet away with a clipboard, offering $5 to anyone willing to take a survey about Sprint advertisements. He is, very simply, sketching their cool. Shoppers get one glimpse of his clipboard, assume everyone in the atrium is shilling something, and avoid the area altogether. "Some people don't like to get approached, so when I go up to them they start running away really fast," Walter admits cheerfully, after he overhears the clerks grumbling about him. "When they walk around me, they're walking totally away from the voting booth, too."

When shoppers do stop at the voting booth, they're sometimes confused about its purpose. "Is this Republican or Democratic?" asks one, eyeing the red-white-and-blue decor.

The clerks have repeated the same mantras all day: No, they are not pushing a specific candidate or political party. No, they are not selling anything. No, the election has not been moved up a few weeks — it's still on November 7. And yes, you can actually vote here in the mall, within smelling distance of the food court. And yes, your vote will count.

The registrar's staffers expected some confusion their first time out. In the past, the only place voters might have seen such a unit would have been at hospitals, retirement homes, or other institutions whose residents are physically unable to get to the polls. But the county's revolutionary tack is to deploy them wherever crowds might be. A few fellow travelers — Clark County, Nevada; Travis County, Texas — have set up similar booths at grocery stores and college campuses. Down south in Riverside County, elections staffers cruise around in a 32-foot motorhome, and invite citizens to step inside to vote.

While sending mobile units to the mall is relatively new, the concept of early voting is not, says Alameda County Registrar of Voters spokesman Guy Ashley. Technically it's a form of absentee voting designed to accommodate those who can't make it to their polling place on election day. Most people are familiar with mail-in absentee ballots, and for the past five years, Alameda County has let voters drop off their ballots weeks in advance at their local city halls. Despite the relative convenience, "early voting at city hall still requires some advanced planning," Ashley notes. "You don't just find yourself wandering down to city hall."

While participation in early voting seemed promising at first, Ashley says, its novelty has worn off. In the June primary, more than 300,000 people cast ballots, but only 1,500 voted early.

Low voter turnout has been an even bigger problem. Even in the best of years, Ashley says, no more than 70 percent of the county's registered voters make it to the polls. In June, only 39 percent did. "Why, I don't know, but I have this nagging suspicion that it's just convenience," he muses. "They wait until election day, and then election day comes and their schedule is packed and they don't vote. That's why I think this is a good idea — people who are not passionate but took the time to register to vote might be willing to do it if they stumble upon it at the mall."

There are still a few kinks to work out: Some NewPark shoppers like the idea but opt not to vote early because they haven't yet studied their ballot guides. Others, who seem a little skeptical about electronic voting in general, are extra-skeptical about electronic voting that turns up unexpectedly outside Mrs. Fields. "People haven't seen this, they don't put the two together — Kay Jewelers and Governor Schwarzenegger," Ashley admits. "People are caught off guard a little bit."

It may take a few election cycles for voters to get used to the idea, says the registrar's spokesman, who is taking today's low success rate in stride. By the end of the day, especially after Walter and some of the reporters decamp for a dinner break, the voting even picks up a little. The clerks collect a total of seventeen ballots, and register another fourteen people to vote. By the following afternoon, when they set up camp outside Oakland's MacArthur BART, a few people have even come looking for them thanks to the previous day's news coverage. Oaklander Lawrence Jones stopped by after hearing about it on the morning news. "I liked the convenience, the economy, the simplicity," he says after emerging from the booth. "Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing!"


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