Election sites at pro sports venues draw voters — but also pushback

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Pro athletes and team officials had a simple goal when they began offering up their stadiums and arenas as election venues: providing voters more options during a pandemic that has thrown up all sorts of new obstacles to voting.

Those efforts have been an unmitigated success in places like Atlanta. But like everything else in 2020, they’ve also become a partisan lightning rod, particularly in the battleground state of Florida.

President Donald Trump himself stoked controversy last week when he held a campaign rally on the grounds of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Raymond James Stadium, which was serving as one of Hillsborough County’s early voting sites at the time. For Trump, that came with an added benefit of being able to direct supporters over to the polls but left the Biden campaign privately fuming over what it believed was an attempt to skirt voting rules.

The Trump campaign event was more than 150 feet from the voting location, as required by Florida law. Still, local election officials warned that the rally would cause traffic delays and parking challenges that could make access to the voting site difficult.

Meanwhile, in Miami, a local activist has filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, claiming the mayor violated voting rights and public records laws, among others, by vetoing a plan to use the Miami Heat’s American Airlines Arena as an early voting site. Gimenez is currently running for Florida’s 26th congressional district as a Republican.

Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor overseeing the Elections Department, told the Miami Herald last week that the mayor’s office “couldn’t conclude [the arena] would be completely apolitical.” A Heat official told the Herald the problem seemed to lie in a “Black Lives Matter” banner hanging outside the arena.

In Wisconsin, the city of Milwaukee abandoned plans to host early voting sites at the Milwaukee Bucks and Brewers stadiums, located in predominantly Black communities, amid Republican complaints about the politicization of team mascots and warnings of voter fraud. The Milwaukee Election Commission blamed the city, saying it had missed the deadline to designate the two stadiums as voting sites.

As Fox News reported, the state still allowed voting in a portion of the Green Bay Packer’s Lambeau Field parking lot. The stadium is located in Brown County, where the population is more than 75 percent white.

Other cities and sports franchises have had more success coming together to make use of the largely empty stadiums and arenas. All told, at least 49 teams across the NBA, WNBA, NFL, NHL and MLB have been, are being or will be hosting election activities at their stadiums and arenas — including early voting locations, ballot drop-off areas, Election Day venues and voter registration centers.

The team that started the trend was the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, which has seen its home court, State Farm Arena, turned into Georgia’s largest-ever voting precinct — a massive venue accessible by public transportation with free parking, trained staff and 300 voting machines open to any early voters registered in Fulton, the state’s most populous county.

In a state known for erecting barriers to voting — consolidated polling places, voter roll purges and long lines — the county’s use of the arena has thus far been a success. Unofficial county election data show State Farm Arena averaged more than 2,000 voters a day, far outpacing turnout at local libraries, recreation centers and other venues in Atlanta.

In an interview with POLITICO, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said the idea to convert the arena into a polling place was born out of protests for George Floyd in early June. Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, sparking a wave of protests across the country for racial justice.

“We were struck that all these young, energetic people were in the streets demanding change, and the top vehicle for change is voting,” Koonin said. “I made a call that night to our operations people and asked if they felt we could host voting. … Once we internally agreed that we could do it, we went and approached Fulton County, made a deal and an announcement in 24 hours.”

Election officials say similar partnerships with pro sports teams around the country have been a huge boon, even if the early turnout data at some venues haven’t drawn the same crowds as the Hawks’ arena. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the leader of a bipartisan group of election experts created by NBA superstar LeBron James’ More Than A Vote coalition, said the partnerships with sports teams helped election administrators “avoid what might’ve been quite challenging and a potentially even disastrous result without their help.”

Benson said her home state of Michigan would’ve had to consolidate polling places and train new poll workers virtually, depriving them of critical hands-on experience, if not for partnerships with Detroit’s sports teams. The Detroit Pistons’ practice facility and the Tigers’ Comerica Park have ballot drop boxes. Little Caesars Arena, where the Pistons and Red Wings play, served as a training facility for more than 6,000 volunteers in September and October. And the Lions’ Ford Field is where election workers will deliver ballots and equipment to be secured after precincts close.

“The real impact here can’t be understated. I don’t know how we would’ve been able to meet the needs in this extraordinary election cycle without these partnerships,” Benson said.

In Texas, which like Georgia has suddenly found itself transformed into a presidential battleground, the Dallas Mavericks’ American Airlines Center saw Dallas County’s highest turnout. The San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center had the sixth-highest turnout in Bexar County, but the margin between the basketball arena and the top-performing venue is only about 123 voters per day.

“There’s really no good excuse on why we wouldn’t use these facilities. It makes perfect sense to use them for voting,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic strategist based in Texas. “They’re designed to get a lot of people in, service them and get them out.”

“In many places — San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, included — you’re talking about taxpayer funding that constructs these facilities, and the taxpayers normally don’t get any direct benefit of it, certainly on the monetary side,” he added. “You know, not a lot of NBA games are played at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday.”

Not all the sports venues that have been transformed into early voting locations have drawn high turnout, however.

An average of almost 650 voters in Harris County voted in the Houston Rockets’ Toyota Center, and nearly 1,075 voters cast ballots at the Texans’ NRG Stadium each day. But eight other venues in Harris, one of the most populous counties in the country, averaged more voters, with each seeing between 1,110 voters and 1,650 per day.

In Florida, 16 other locations across Hillsborough County have had higher turnout than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Raymond James Stadium and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Amalie Arena. And in Orange County, more voters cast ballots in five early voting precincts than the Orlando Magic’s Amway Center.

Bill Cowles, the elections supervisor for Orange County, isn’t surprised there wasn’t larger turnout at the Amway Center. He said that’s because the initial push for using sports arenas came when fears about coronavirus sparked concerns about a shortage of polling places that could easily space out crowds. That hasn’t turned out to be an issue in Orange County, which had three more early voting places this year than it did for the 2016 general election.

“The Amway Center is one of 20 sites that we have. So you don’t have that situation where people are rushing down to it,” Cowles said.

Other factors, Cowles said, include the Amway Center’s location, which is downtown near an interstate highway and other busy roads usually clogged with traffic.

The Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium has had more voters than the Charlotte Hornets’ Spectrum Center. But 10 venues had more ballots cast there than where the Panthers play. Like other places across the country, though, North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County broke turnout records.

Michael Dickerson, Mecklenburg County’s director of elections, said the county’s first and second day of early voting produced the highest and second-highest turnout ever. Success with sports partnerships, he said, shouldn’t be based entirely on turnout numbers.

“It may not be doing 3,500 or 2,500 a day,” Dickerson said of the Spectrum Center, “but here in this county, we [were] doing over 25 to 30,000 voters a day. It’s all part of the early voting process. It’s just not necessarily the one site.”

Dickerson said he’s impressed with the willingness of teams to come to the county elections board to become early voting sites. Other election officials also stressed that teams came to them, not vice versa.

“The recognition that that gave us, the publicity that people would then read about and hear about that it’s going to be an early voting site, it cascaded all the way down,” Dickerson added.

More than 96 million voters across the country have already cast ballots as of Monday afternoon, according to the U.S. Elections Project. More than 61 million of those ballots have been mailed in, with 30 million mail ballots outstanding, which may help explain why some sports precincts haven’t generated standout numbers compared to other polling locations.

Still, election officials are hopeful the partnerships with sports teams will continue beyond the unique circumstances of this election and spur other state-of-the-art facilities like museums to offer themselves as future voting locations.

“I always wanna see how it turns out. I always want to see if what we have done did what we set out to accomplish,” said Rick Welts, president and chief operating officer of the Golden State Warriors. “And if it does, I can’t think of any reason why we wouldn’t continue to be following the same path at some point in the future.”

Koonin, the Hawks CEO, said he didn’t know whether this year’s effort will be replicated.

“I think that’s a question we’re gonna spend a lot of time talking about as a league after this year,” he said. “I would love to see that the NBA uses its buildings and sports uses our arenas and stadiums for big, national elections.”

Dickerson, of Mecklenburg County, said the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to change how officials conduct elections going forward. For example, Dickerson noted that the 200,000 absentee ballots sent this year is five times more than in a traditional election year.

“It will be interesting to follow what comes out of this as far as voting patterns and voting processes because I do think that you will find people that will say, ‘I’d rather vote early at a large spot,’ or: ‘I’d rather vote by mail from now on. I don’t even know where my precinct is anymore,’” he continued. “All of these things may change how we do voting in the future.”

Gary Fineout and Marc Caputo contributed reporting.

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