Sports arenas

Election vote tally is boosted by scoring sports arenas

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LOS ANGELES – Shabazz Williams walked out of Staples Center on Election Day wearing a Lakers jersey and team-branded face mask, his civic duty done.

Williams, 38, knew he could have voted at a polling station closer to his home in Sherman Oaks, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles. But where’s the fun in that?

Instead, the Lakers fan donned a jersey and walked to the team’s stadium, where he said it took him no more than 15 minutes to fill out his ballot.

“I go to the Staples Center every year to watch games,” said Williams, “and this would have been the first year I haven’t been there.”

Similar scenes unfolded in major metropolitan areas across the country last week, as dozens of professional and university sports facilities joined the electoral process – most, like the Staples Center, for the first time.

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Some sites have become vote counting centers or have hosted voter registration campaigns. Others served as drop-off points for mail-in ballots. And dozens of arenas or professional stadiums welcomed voters in person, on election day or before.

“I think it’s good that they were able to do it right here at the stadium,” said Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who voted at Arrowhead Stadium on election day.

The use of sports arenas as polling stations was symbolic, to some extent, another way for leagues and teams to show their support for the cause. But there was also a tangible impact behind the gesture.

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USA TODAY Sports contacted local election officials and compiled voter turnout data from 29 counties in which 40 arenas and professional stadiums were used as voting locations. Data showed that over 298,000 people voted in these places in one way or another. (Many counties were only able to provide partial data immediately after the election, and New York officials, who had voted on two sports venues, did not respond to repeated requests for his numbers.)

Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the US Election Assistance Commission, said the availability of arenas and sports stadiums “absolutely made a difference” in helping the elections run smoothly amid the pandemic of COVID-19.

“What we’ve seen with so many of these (sports) facilities is when they volunteered, when they made themselves available, it solved major problems for election officials,” said Hovland, whose The agency provides federal support to state and local election officials.

” An evidence “

As late spring turned into early summer, election officials across the country saw the start of a looming challenge.

George Floyd’s death and the national social justice movement have resulted in increased voter interest and enthusiasm, meaning their facilities are likely to accommodate more voters than in previous years. But the ongoing pandemic also meant that some of their traditional polling stations, such as senior citizens’ centers and schools, would be unavailable.

Replacement places needed to check a list of boxes. They had to be large enough to allow social distancing, with a reliable internet connection, ample parking, security features, ADA accessibility, and proximity to public transportation, to begin with. They also had to be available for six weeks, in some cases.

“Sometimes people don’t achieve everything that (a polling center) needs,” said Paul Gronke, professor of political science at Reed College.

“When these sports facilities started to arrive, I think (for) a lot of people in my community, it was one of those slap in the face moments. As a boy, it’s obvious, isn’t it. ? They really are. They all have these characteristics. “

NBA teams were the first to offer their arenas as voting sites, as part of a deal with the players’ association following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Twenty-three teams provided arenas and training facilities for voting and voting-related activities, including advance voting, election officer training locations, ballot depositing, voting events. registration of non-partisan voters and voting on election day.

In Washington, DC, Wizards executives, coaches and players greeted voters at Capital One Arena on election day. Coach Scott Brooks, who lives a few blocks from the arena, voted there. In Chicago, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, twice as many people voted at the United Center than any other universal voting site or forum. And over 30,000 people voted at the American Airlines Center in Dallas and the Smoothie King Arena in New Orleans.

However, no professional sports arena has hosted more voters than the Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena, according to data from USA TODAY Sports.

Nearly 40,000 Fulton County residents voted in the arena in early voting in Georgia, a key state in which Joe Biden holds a narrow lead over Donald Trump. The team wanted to provide a non-partisan site without long wait times. With 302 voting machines in physically remote locations, poll workers kept the lines up even when there were 3,000 people a day in the first week of advance voting.

“The most important thing for us was to take that first step,” said Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce. “We were the first team to activate our arena. It was an idea, a reflection and an element of action that came to fruition. It started as an idea and then became obvious.… We were really proud of it. as an organization to pull it off. “

Pierce, who volunteered to host the early voting, said he will never forget the father who got his son to vote for the first time. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said watching people vote in the arena was “a lot more emotional than I thought.”

Koonin told the story of an 80-year-old black man who used a walker. The man told Koonin he hadn’t voted for 30 years because he didn’t think his vote made a difference. He put his ballot into the machine, the machine said his vote had been accepted, and the man started to cry.

“We were helping our state and our city to participate in the democratic process,” Koonin said. “In addition, we were helping to facilitate the vote. This is how it should be. No one should stand in line for 10 hours to vote, or vote at a Kiwanis club or library. Nothing against these places, but the vote should take place in large rooms. “

The start of a trend?

In Los Angeles, the use of sports venues like Staples Center and Dodger Stadium was part of a larger shift to a polling center model – which could become a trend. Instead of being assigned a specific polling station, the county set up several centers and invited its residents to vote at a location of their choice.

Gretchen Macht, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, and her team spent polling day observing some of these sites as part of the URI VOTES project, which seeks to use the data to improve voting procedures. At Dodger Stadium, she saw waves of team-clad fans who decided to vote there almost as a way to celebrate the team’s recent World Series title. Voters for the first time were greeted by cheers from poll workers.

“If this is your first time to vote, what better place to go and exercise your right to vote than a place that will be memorable like this?” Macht said. “I think it has some value.”

Staples Center and Dodger Stadium were each among the most profitable voting centers in the county, in terms of attendance. And Los Angeles County Clerk-Registrar / County Clerk Dean Logan wrote in an email that his office had seen signs of excitement about voting at these sports venues, and others – well that many people have always chosen to vote at a community center or town hall in their immediate neighborhood. district.

“Professional sports sites and their corresponding franchises played an important role in the general election,” Logan wrote. “Not only by serving as a voting center, but as a community partner in civic engagement and empowerment.”

Hovland, the federal voting official, said it would be difficult to quantify the impact of sports arenas and stadiums on the 2020 election due to county-to-county variations and the prevalence of voting by correspondence. But he suggested they could have influenced even voters who voted elsewhere.

“Maybe I didn’t go to the Pepsi Center because it wasn’t my location in downtown Denver, but I saw it and thought it was cool. And then I went to find out where I was supposed to vote, and I went to vote, because I saw that, ”Hovland said.

He also credited the sports world for its voting efforts beyond the use of arenas and stadiums. Professional and college teams, for example, ran voter registration campaigns to ensure all of their athletes were registered to vote. And Lakers star LeBron James created an organization called “More Than a Vote” which, among other things, recruited 40,000 people to vote.

The use of sports venues as polling stations this year was, at its core, a unique solution to the one-off challenges presented by COVID-19. In fact, in a normal year many of the venues used for voting would otherwise have hosted games or other events, such as concerts.

But experts and election officials are hopeful that their partnerships with sports organizations continue – and that voting in a stadium or arena could become mainstream.

“A sports arena has a kind of sense of community. There is the fan base and the feeling that it’s a gathering place,” said Gronke, professor of political science.

“I hope these (arenas) will become a trend. I don’t know if it will. But I hope it is.”

Contribution: Peter Barzilai and Mike Freeman

Follow the journalists on Twitter @ joshlpeter11, @Tom_Schad and @JeffZillgitt.

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