Editor’s Note: The following article is a guest column from More Than a Vote, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting Black voters founded by LeBron James and a group of other prominent Black athletes and entertainers. This column was authored by a group of elections officials partnering with the organization to help turn sporting venues into voting location. The opinions within are their own.
Live sports are back on our screens and in our homes. Last month, professional basketball resumed in isolation in Florida — a light of joy for fans in these dark, uncertain times and a testament to both the NBA and WNBA’s commitment to the health and safety of their players and our communities.
But this year, as our country prepares for a historic national election amidst a global pandemic, there’s another important way professional sports franchises can serve as stewards of democracy: by partnering directly with election administrators to turn their now empty arenas into voting locations, using their platforms to provide voters with accurate information about how to cast their ballots, and encouraging team personnel to staff the elections. When athletes and other sports leaders partner with their state and local election officials directly, they make democracy work for all.
We face a unique challenge this year as millions of Americans will cast ballots this fall amid the ongoing public health crisis. As we witnessed throughout the primary process, the pandemic has not dampened voter enthusiasm. In every state, voters will brave lines, fewer polling places, and even a pandemic to make their voices heard. But they shouldn’t have to. During the early voting period for the August 11 runoff, voters in Fulton County, Georgia saw shorter lines and well-trained staff at the State Farm Arena voting site – home of the Atlanta Hawks – demonstrating a model that can accommodate convenient, safe in-person voting, even during the current health crisis.
As arenas lie dormant during the pandemic, professional sports franchises and facilities management have a unique opportunity to provide a core civic function by working in concert with local election administrators to arrange safe and easily accessible voting options for their communities by converting their arenas and team facilities into voting locations both during the early voting period and on Election Day. Arenas and other large capacity team facilities are not only conducive to social distancing, they are widely-known locations within communities and are often easily accessible via transit. In short, they provide a safe and equitable solution to a problem that is not going away before Election Day.
Even with enough appropriate voting locations, it will be difficult to staff those locations with enough trained poll workers. The traditional pool of volunteers relies heavily on older Americans — the very population most at-risk to coronavirus. To help address this shortage, teams can fill the void by encouraging their employees to volunteer as election workers by providing company-wide paid days off throughout the voting period to ensure that their employees can both vote and serve in the arenas they already know inside-out.
Lastly, players, coaches, and on-air personalities are some of the most well-known and trusted names in our communities. These leaders in the world of sports can become civic leaders, using their platforms to inform the public on how to safely vote during the pandemic. Teams can work with local election administrators to organize public education campaigns that inform citizens of these new arena voting opportunities and provide other critical information such as how to successfully vote by mail or how to vote in-person safely and conveniently.
More Than A Vote, the nonpartisan voting rights group that we advise, has taken the lead in developing and promoting this suite of solutions in several cities to date. Teams in Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, and Sacramento have already stepped up, and former NFL Executive Scott Pioli has directly called on NFL teams and college coaches to offer their sports facilities as voting sites while advising and making critical connections to enable Secretaries of State from both sides of the aisle to bring these partnerships to fruition. We can replicate these efforts at scale across the country. All it takes is the leadership of athletes, the sports franchises, and local election administrators.
We are a mix of Democrats, Republicans, and non-partisan election administrators. We offer these recommendations not to further any partisan or political agenda, but with a clear understanding of the challenges we face this cycle to ensure that every voter that wishes to participate can do so without sacrificing their health or safety.
American Democracy does not have a pause button. During a civil war, two world wars, natural disasters, and domestic crises, we have managed to provide our citizens with the tools they need to fulfill the most fundamental civic duty. Each time it has required innovation and collaboration. In this instance and in the absence of live sports, some of our most treasured civic institutions — our sports teams — can still open their doors to ensure that voting is convenient and safe for all.
Pamela Anderson, Former Clerk and Recorder, Jefferson County, CO, Executive Director, Colorado Clerk’s Association
David Becker, Executive Director, Center for Election Innovation & Research
Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State (D)
Trey Grayson, Former Kentucky Secretary of State (R)
Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State (R)
Tahesha Way, New Jersey Secretary of State (D)