Arenas, Stadiums Find New Life as Safer Options for Voting

The pandemic has created a new need for socially distanced voting locations, as well as a unique opportunity with venues idled after games and other events were canceled

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With long waits making headlines during early voting across the country, professional sports venues have emerged as bright spots, repurposing huge spaces mostly devoid of fans into efficient and relatively safe polling places.

Featuring rows and rows of voting machines, ample space for social distancing and staff accustomed to large crowds, these mega voting sites are proving attractive to voters looking for the best way to cast their ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“This was an amazing, fantastic experience,” Jen Cox said after voting at State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks. Other voters leaving the arena and posting on social media shared that sentiment.

The Hawks were the first NBA team to commit their arena for early voting. They contacted Fulton County officials in June after long lines plagued the state's primary election and protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis roiled the streets around the arena.

With early voting drawing crowds to polling locations across the country, NBCLX storyteller Clark Fouraker has safety tips for voters heading to the polls. Bringing your own pen and social distancing in line are just some ways you can stay safe from COVID-19 this election.

“In my mind, protests are great, but protests leading to action, leading to solutions and change is better,” Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said.

Since then, 20 more NBA teams signed on to host voting or other election-related activities — including voter registration and poll worker training — in their arenas or practice facilities. Some of those commitments came after NBA players protesting racial injustice and police brutality halted the playoffs for three days in August, and the league agreed to a plan that includes encouraging voting this fall.

In a normal year, the NBA's regular season would be starting right about now. But the coronavirus outbreak that has altered voting procedures during the presidential election also has delayed the season and left arenas sitting empty. Opening them to voters seemed a natural fit.

“We’re going to have thousands every day between now and Election Day voting in NBA arenas,” said Kathy Behrens, the league's social responsibility and player programs president. “It feels good to be able to play such a vital role during this pandemic so people can vote safely and easily.”

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden squared off in their second debate on Thursday. It was the last scheduled debate before the Nov. 3 election.

The NFL, NHL and MLB also are getting involved. Half the NFL's 32 teams are making their facilities available following offseason conversations commissioner Roger Goodell had with players about ways to leverage the league’s power against social injustice.

Vivek Ranadivé, owner of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, was instrumental in a “Rally the Vote” effort bringing together dozens of professional sports teams to encourage participation. Voters will be able to register and cast ballots at the Kings' Golden 1 Center, blocks from California's Capitol, starting 11 days before the Nov. 3 election.

“I wanted to make voting as easy as ordering an Uber,” he said.

After waiting five hours “in the heat and then the rain” to vote in Georgia's primary in June, Cox decided to vote early in the general election. Lines at polling places near her home in suburban Roswell were consistently long, so she drove 20 miles south to downtown Atlanta.

“I had heard great things about the way the Atlanta Hawks staff was running the arena, and it was by far the easiest and safest and best way I’ve voted since the pandemic began,” she said.

There are 30 early voting locations scattered around Fulton County, which stretches 70 miles north to south. But with 60 check-in stations and 300 voting machines, the arena may be the best option for many, county elections director Rick Barron told reporters.

“Voters will probably save time by going to State Farm, driving from wherever they are,” he said, while noting there is a transit station right next to the arena.

A glitch with the electronic pollbooks used to activate the cards that go into the voting machines caused a backup at the arena the day it opened, but it was cleared quickly and nearly 3,000 people voted there that day, Barron said.

Voters in Dallas have enthusiastically embraced the arena experience.

In Florida, African Americans make up 16% of the voting population but account for more than 20% of those who have lost their right to vote due to prior felony convictions. Even after a permanent ban on voting was lifted for people with felonies on their records, the state continues to bar them from casting ballots until they have paid all debts related to their cases. Today, activists are getting an assist from the NBA as they try to restore voting rights to these Floridians.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban retweeted a message that said the American Airlines Center was “the coolest polling place I've ever voted in." Cuban added that there are 60 polling stations set up inside.

The next day, he tweeted a photo of voting machines in the arena's concourse, calling it “Democracy in action.”

In Detroit, the training facility for the NBA's Pistons and Ford Field, where the NFL's Lions play, will provide socially distant spaces for receiving boards to double check ballots after they are counted at precincts. Pistons Vice Chairman Arn Tellem said helping with this year's election is important because the only way to bring about change is to vote.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, whose district includes parts of Detroit, said it's appropriate for taxpayer-funded sports facilities to play this role.

“We did subsidize the building, so of course they should be using them for public good,” Tlaib said.

If you've never voted by mail before, it might seem new and even a little dangerous. But mail-in voting actually dates back to the Civil War. Chase Cain explains the long and uncontroversial history of voting by mail.

Florida has early voting at venues used by the NBA’s Orlando Magic, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

When he went to vote on Monday, Anton Versch, 30, said he was surprised to see Magic coach Steve Clifford assisting poll workers inside the Amway Center. There were no lines and voters were in and out quickly.

“I felt like I was a player. I just had to make the right decisions,” Versch said.

Not every team request was approved. Miami-Dade County rejected an offer from the Miami Heat, saying they wanted only sites that can be used in the future and, in most years, the NBA and early voting seasons overlap.

In Milwaukee, election officials scrapped plans to use the Bucks basketball and Brewers baseball stadiums as early voting locations, citing concerns about legal challenges, since they would have been designated later than required by state law.

One person, one vote is the democratic ideal. So why is the American system of voting still based on the Electoral College? In this opinion piece from The New York Times, Jesse Wegman explains the myths that keep us clinging to this system of voting – and why it may be finally time to let them go.

The pandemic has created a new need for socially distanced voting locations, as well as a unique opportunity with venues idled after games and other events were canceled. But Behrens said the NBA plans to continue promoting voting once it's over.

“We don’t think there’s anything more American than encouraging people to participate in the process," she said.

Lage reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contributed to this report.

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