Sports venues become vehicle to counter voter suppression amid coronavirus pandemic

Sports activism is not new, but it's being fought on a new front this November.

September 10, 2020, 6:06 AM

A striking three-day walkout in the NBA, a collection of NFL players demanding "we will not be silenced," and a veteran coach, Doc Rivers, deviating from a press conference with reporters to encourage players to "walk the walk" by registering to vote are far from the first incidents of sports activism -- but they are the latest iterations and some of the most visible acts of the country's wrestling over racial injustice permeating professional sports.

Both unnerved by the recent violence on Black Americans by law enforcement and filled with urgency amid the protests on race in pockets of the country, professional athletes are further stepping up the fight over voter suppression by offering up arenas to be transformed into massive polling locations in less than 60 days.

With the coronavirus pandemic raging across the country, millions of voters are preparing to rely on mail-in ballots. But for those still planning to head to the polls, election officials are working with professional teams and leagues to implement the "super center" model, which was first used this cycle in Kentucky's June primary election with relative success, allowing their home venues to be available for safely hosting in-person voting with enough space for social distancing.

The Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks kneel during the National Anthem in a game at the AdventHealth Arena in Lake Buena Vista, Fl., Sept. 6, 2020.
Douglas P. Defelice/Getty Images

Last month, four major sports leagues, including the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, announced a joint campaign to supplement in-person voting, alongside the Elections Super Centers Project, the National Vote at Home Institute and Silver Linings Group.

Through the initiative, more than a dozen teams are planning to open their doors to voters, including the Los Angeles Clippers -- which Rivers coaches -- Washington Wizards, Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers, Boston Red Sox, New Jersey Devils, Dallas Mavericks, Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Capitals.

In some of this cycle’s most crucial battlegrounds, too, stadiums are being put to use after months without fans, including the Gila River Arena in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the bellwether region of the state that Democrats are hoping sides with former Vice President Joe Biden this fall, and Amalie Arena in Florida’s Hillsborough County, which sits on the state’s prescient I-4 corridor.

Nearly two dozen NBA arenas are also in the mix, such as the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center and the Staples Center, which is home to both the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers.

Driving the effort by the NBA is in large part the players, who have made the Black Lives Matter movement a central figure in this year’s season. At the end of last month, the league and the players association jointly announced that they will work to open NBA-owned facilities to voters as part of the deal to resume the playoffs after the players refused to take the court in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was struck seven times in the back by a white police officer in Wisconsin.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James and forward Anthony Davis stand on the court of the AdventHealth Arena in Lake Buena Vista, Fl., Sept. 6, 2020.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

"In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property, team governors will continue to work with local elections officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election," the statement reads.

One group that has been at the forefront of the campaign to draft sports facilities into the elections process is More Than a Vote, the star-studded voting rights organization helmed by LeBron James, which began the push to use arenas earlier this summer.

"The most important thing you all need to know is Black voters matter more than ever," an open letter from the coalition’s founding members, including James, reads. "Because these Black voters have so much influence, they will be more aggressively targeted by forces of suppression."

Since its inception in June, the group has focused on combating Black voter suppression, working with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and leveraging their influence to channel the energy fueling the demonstrations on race into the presidential election.

The group’s mission, though, goes beyond voting, with initiatives so far aimed at helping pay outstanding fines and fees for former felons in Florida seeking to vote in November and pouring millions into a recruitment campaign to strengthen the poll worker force for the election, which has been dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The newness of it all makes it very difficult for us to ... scale up quite quickly," Benson, who advises More Than a Vote, said in an interview Wednesday about the impact of the coronavirus on preparing for the election. "Our needs have really doubled as we prepare for November and More Than a Vote has stepped up."

The organization was also instrumental in bringing some of the first arenas -- the Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ stadium -- into the fray. More Than a Vote has also helped secure all four arenas in the Detroit area for election purposes in the weeks leading up to November.

Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, was offered to serve as a ballot drop-off location for the county, and Little Caesars Arena, where the Detroit Red Wings play, will serve as a poll worker training facility this fall. Both the Henry Ford Pistons Performance Center, the Detroit Pistons’ practice facility, and Ford Field, the home base for the Detroit Lions, will be used as a receiving board for ballots this fall.

"A lot of what I've been doing is really pushing teams and election administrators to think bigger about what they want to accomplish together," Benson said. "In past cycles, anytime a sports team has worked with an election administrator, it's been, let's do a PSA, let's encourage people to get registered to vote. And in my first conversation with the More Than a Vote team, we talked specifically about how this cycle, we needed more."

The use of the super center model emerged after a turbulent primary season in states that struggled to quickly adapt to running elections in the age of the coronavirus. Wisconsin and Georgia were the sites of two of this cycle’s most chaotic primaries, marred by scenes of long lines, staffing shortages and voter confusion in the spring and early summer.

Before Kentucky’s June 23 primary, election officials watched other states execute their elections, only to find that the old model wasn’t working. The commonwealth turned to large-scale venues -- a decision made in concert with county clerks, the governor’s office and the state board of elections.

"You've got polling locations in normal places like seniors centers, small rooms in basement churches -- everything you don't want to cram a whole bunch of people into during a pandemic," said Jared Dearing, the executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections. "What we decided was to do the complete opposite. Instead of having a whole bunch of small locations, the idea is we create one giant location."

Kentucky has since become a model -- not just for election officials but for voting rights groups looking to replicate their efforts in other states in November. Some of those organizations involved with working on adapting sports arenas into polling locations have consulted with officials in the Bluegrass state.

"Elections are not a monopoly of ideas," Dearing said. "The hope here is that there are some states that will be able to use these incredibly effectively."

The facilities themselves bring to the political arena a number of advantages, including size and location, often sitting in the center of cities, but an added benefit is their familiarity to those in the communities.

"They tend to be located in the hearts of the communities that we're trying to serve," Michael Tyler, the executive vice president for Public Affairs and Talent Relations for More Than a Vote, told ABC News. "So you're creating a solution that solves for public health and equity too. Also an added advantage is that people tend to know where these facilities are."

Some teams, though, are facing challenges with turning their arenas into polling locations because each state is accountable to its own set of election rules and the system for voting was designed to have voters cast their ballots at their local precinct, experts told ABC News.

PHOTO: Voters make their way through the polling process during the primary election held at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville,  Ky., June 23, 2020.
Voters make their way through the polling process during the primary election held at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky., June 23, 2020.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images, FILE

For example, the Miami Heat lended the American Airlines Arena to election officials to operate as a polling site for the presidential election, but officials ultimately decided to go in a different direction -- citing their familiarity with the Frost Museum, and it’s accessibility, even though the Heat’s home stadium is only four blocks away.

"We will be using the Frost Museum as an early voting site for the 2020 General Election due to our longstanding relationship with the museum, public transportation accessibility and use of their facility for future endeavors," Suzy Trutie, the deputy supervisor of elections for Miami-Dade County, told ABC News.

The announcement was a blow to the Heat, but the team said they would not be deterred in using their platform to amplify get-out-the-vote efforts.

"To say we are disappointed is a huge understatement," according to a statement from the Miami Heat. "But to the extent that forces involved in making this decision think this will quiet our voice on the critical importance of voting, they should know that we will not be deterred."

While it may ultimately be up to local officials to decide whether or not arenas can and will be used for elections, for the activists involved, such as More Than a Vote, they say this is only the beginning of their fight for justice.

"I think this should serve as the starting point," Tyler said. "Our hope is that this becomes a permanent piece of the landscape, not just during COVID."

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