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Stadium and arena voting is just one step in long war against voter suppression

State Farm Arena in Atlanta sits ready and waiting for voters.
State Farm Arena in Atlanta sits ready and waiting for voters.
Image: (Getty Images)

In a healthy, vibrant and functioning democracy, Nse Ufot’s job would be done by a government official.

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“I would love to have elections officials, county officials, a government that took democracy seriously and took defending democracy as their top priority. We just don’t,” she tells Deadspin. “And so we stand in the gap.”

Her role? CEO of the nonpartisan voting rights group, the New Georgia Project. Her mission? To “ultimately change the culture of voting in elections and civic engagement.”

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Like the rest of 2020, the way we’ll all vote is different this year, too. Some votes will be cast by mail, some ballots will be placed in drop boxes, some voters will show up to their usual polling sites, and many Americans could have the chance to vote in their local sports venue. The movement to offer these “supercenters” for voting has gained traction across the country ahead of Election Day.

You are by no means required to vote at a stadium or arena this year. The option is simply there in some cities and towns if you want an alternative to your local polling place or your mailbox.

Stadiums and arenas will serve as secondary polling locations and each can host a large number of voters from a variety of polling districts. The hope is that these supercenters will ease the burden on crowded Election Day facilities and offer a space for socially-distant, in-person voting.

In June, weeks after the Georgia Primary, the Atlanta Hawks became the first NBA team to offer their home court up to the larger community. On Monday, the arena opened for early voting.

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Technical problems arose on day one, but officials have been working to resolve the issue. The arena is expected to host thousands of voters a day from now until October 30. Other parts of the city are already seeing long lines reminiscent of the state’s primary.

Here’s how the Atlanta Journal Constitution reviewed the process:

Though some voters had to wait for over an hour, once the technical issues were resolved the lines moved quickly. By 10:45 a.m., voters were consistently moving through the process in about 30 minutes.

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Ufot and the New Georgia Project think the idea to host voters in sports venues is a good first step to defend democracy — but she won’t go much further than that. Ufot welcomes her hometown Hawks and other sports leagues offering arenas to voters, especially voters of color, to make their voices heard.

The New Georgia Project is an Atlanta based organization that aims to “build a bigger we” in the constitution’s “We the People ...” The project seeks to register voters from what they call a “new American majority” — Georgians who are increasingly young and racially diverse.

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“Georgia is going through this massive demographic shift,” she says. “Two million people have moved here in the past decade — over 80 percent of them are people of color.”

But Georgia is home to some of the most recent examples of egregious voter suppression. The state primary saw hours-long lines, faulty voting machines, and absentee complications primarily among its Black communities.

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“If there is a silver lining to be found in this pandemic,” she says, “it is [now] very clear that there are people who are actively working to dismantle our democratic and our electoral institutions.”

Weeks before the 2020 election, Ufot says, “this is very much an all-hands-on-deck moment.”

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So when LeBron James started More Than A Vote to help black and brown communities fight voter suppression after witnessing the disastrous Georgia Primary, Ufot was all for it. “Everyone,” pro athletes included, she says, “can do something in this moment.”

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But what she finds troubling is that it takes civilians, not the government, to do the work of making voting easier and more accessible for people of color.

“It kind of pisses me off that I see grassroots organizations, civil rights and voting rights organizations coming up to stand in the gap where our government has failed,” she says. “I see LeBron’s efforts as similar to our own: doing what you can, where our government has failed.”

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Early voters queue up to cast their ballots in Atlanta on Monday, October 12.
Image: (Getty Images)

One idea More Than A Vote has advocated for is stadium voting. It’s a proposal NBA players have adamantly been pushing for since their player strike in August. Nearly a month later, 25 out of 29 U.S. NBA teams have offered their facilities up for some form of election activity.

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When it was revealed that many NBA players, themselves, are not registered to vote, Chris Paul began speaking up about the importance of voting with his organization, When We All Vote, and helped his teammates register for November. During game 3 of the NBA finals CP3 told ABC that 90 percent of NBA players are now registered to vote.

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LeBron’s group and others, like the election supercenters project, want sports arenas, concert venues, movie theaters, and other large event spaces to be transformed into giant socially-distant polling centers nationwide.

So far, over 50 pro sports facilities from the Staples Center to the Barclays Center have signed up to host voter registration events, election activities, early voting, Election Day voting or all of above. Stadium voting will happen in red states, blue states, swing states, urban centers, and a few suburbs.

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Graphic: Deadspin

A few colleges, like the University of Maryland, have offered their on or off-campus sports facilities for voting, as well.

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Recently, More Than A Vote also announced a poll workers’ initiative that has already attracted 10,000 volunteers and is looking to expand their poll worker presence in southern cities with large Black populations.

“It’s an extraordinary first step,” Ufot says of stadium voting. But she says she’s “not comfortable extrapolating more from this when there’s so much ahead of us.”

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Some of the other steps Nse wants to see are for her state to stop “trying to purge Black people [and people, period] from the voter rolls.” She wants absentee ballots mailed to every Georgia voter “so they have the option of just dropping it off at a Dropbox.” She also would love to see more “voter information and sample voter guides” distributed. And how about automatic voter registration? That’s another policy the voting expert supports.

Ufot also spoke about the funding of these sports stadiums which are paid, in large part, by taxpayers. State Farm Arena in Atlanta, opened in 1999 at a cost of $213.5 million dollars, 91 percent of which was publicly financed. The Grizzlies, Hornets, Rockets, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Knicks, and Thunder all play in 100-percent publicly funded arenas.

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If taxpayers are helping to fund their city’s venue, as folks do in 27 NBA cities, why shouldn’t they have the right to use that space for democratic purposes?

“I fundamentally believe that taxpayer dollars create opportunities for team owners to build these massive stadiums. And I know that they’re recognized as economic engines, but ultimately you are a corporate citizen of Atlanta,” she says. “And what we are witnessing is long lines at the polls that are creating horrible experiences for people who simply want to vote and make sure that their vote is counted.”

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Offering a taxpayer-funded venue is not a heroic donation by the city. It is merely offering a space that the people paid for.

“I’m happy to know that it’s not just a relationship of extraction where the Hawks organization and these leagues see their fortunes tied with the fortunes of the citizens and their fan base,” says Ufot.

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These venues are also often in city centers away from residential areas. Asked if the proposal could help bring the “new American majority” to a new kind of polling place, Ufot responded saying, “no doubt.”

“Anything that gives voters options,” she says, “anything that can alleviate the crazy long lines.”

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If a stadium in downtown Atlanta near the city’s historically Black Westside could benefit communities of color in the area, perhaps so could SoFi Stadium or The Forum in Inglewood, the Amway Center in downtown Orlando, the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, the Entertainment and Sports Arena in southeast DC and dozens of other arenas close to communities of color.

Stadium voting would’ve been useful in Milwaukee, the largest and most racially diverse city in Wisconsin — which is also a battleground state in the 2020 race. But since state GOP leaders criticized the Bucks and Brewers stadium voting efforts, Milwaukee election officials have stripped these supercenters as early voting sites. Meanwhile, less than two hours up the road in Green Bay (73 percent white), voters will still be able to cast their vote outside Lambeau Field on election day.

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Voting booths set up at the Honda Center in Anaheim, which is 70% white and 2.5% Black.
Image: (Getty Images)

Supercenters could be super convenient if you’re back in the downtown office and open to driving or taking public transportation to the polls in a pandemic. But not everyone will feel comfortable, or have equal opportunity to do so.

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While many arenas are close to Black and Brown neighborhoods, other arenas are in predominantly white neighborhoods, away from communities of color.

A new American majority may not hit the polls in overwhelming numbers at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City (73 percent white) or cast a vote at Arrowhead Stadium outside Kansas City. The NFL stadium says they can host Jefferson County voters (70 percent white) at the Chiefs stadium on election day.

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And Madison Square Garden will serve 60,000 New Yorkers for early voting, but many of these New Yorkers will come from Manhattan’s West Side or Midtown. Thousands of other New Yorkers will vote in schools, auditoriums, churches, and other large spaces across the city a week before the election with early voting.

There are also plenty of other black neighborhoods that are nowhere near a stadium. Think of the rural voters from the Southeast’s Black Belt, Ufot says.

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“‘Rural voters’ [is] often code for ‘white conservatives.’ Georgia blows that conventional wisdom up,” she says. “There are 20 counties in the state that are majority Black, and most of them are in rural parts of the state.”

These smaller populations won’t have stadiums to go to.

In addition, Ufot wonders whether these leagues, who have embraced voting campaigns, are really ready to continue the work after the polls close.

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“I understand that teams are [also] paying for Uber and Lyft codes for folks to get access to the polls. And we’re excited about that,” she says. “But here’s the deal: I think that they’re going to get a lot of good press. And I think that it is in the aftermath, after November 3rd, we get to judge their commitment to full participation in our democracy and in our elections.”

Since Ufot spoke to Deadspin in late September, More Than a Vote released a campaign called “the work.” In a statement provided to Deadspin, the campaign “encourages young Black voters to make a plan to vote in the 2020 general election.”

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More Than A Vote has also recently partnered with Black Players for Change (BPC), a coalition of Black professional soccer players that will urge soccer fans to vote. “The most important thing we can do as athletes in this moment to combat the systemic racism and persistent injustice that plagues our nation is to encourage all of our fans to join us by getting off of the sidelines and into the ballot box,” BPC executive board member and Portland Timbers Forward, Jeremy Ebobisse said in a statement provided to Deadspin.

“By changing the culture around civic engagement and really taking ownership of our ability to influence the electoral process, we can begin to build a society inclusive of all of our diverse backgrounds. This summer, we’ve taken our energy to the streets, and now it’s time to be heard through our vote,” said Ebobisse.

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While Ufot is wary of giving stadium voting a full-throated endorsement, she knows that the celebrity status of athletes and the physical spaces of sports arenas can encourage participation in democracy.

“Culture eats strategy for lunch every day,” Ufot admits. For her, stadium voting, along with athletes advocating to get out the vote could “normalize the act of voting as a part of what you do as an adult, as a part of what you do as a citizen.”

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“I think it is actually useful and powerful,” she says.

Some large scale polling facilities have already been used during this year’s primary season. In Kentucky, the city of Louisville created a central polling place, not in a stadium, but in a large warehouse at the fairgrounds to host voters.

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“There was some fear that because there was a closing of [local Louisville] polling locations” in place of one big voting center, “that was going to be a huge problem and [create] a huge amount of disenfranchisement,” Corey Shapiro, legal director of ACLU Kentucky, told Deadspin. “I don’t think we saw that happen.”

Instead, Kentucky saw its highest voter turnout in a primary since 2008. But that’s also due to the number of votes by mail. A higher turnout was also recorded in Louisville’s Jefferson County, the state’s largest county by population and home to almost half of Kentucky’s Black population.

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One issue that did come up, however, was the early statewide poll closing time — 6 p.m. Voters were temporarily locked out of the Louisville supercenter after six, but were later allowed in the event center.

“When people are planning for these supercenters, I think one of the lessons from Kentucky is to think about transportation issues as it relates to getting to the location and the timing of when the polls close,” Shapiro said.

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Every stadium voting experience will come with its own logistical hurdles. Traffic and transit are one of them.

Another issue to consider, obviously, is the pandemic. The idea to turn stadiums and large event spaces into precincts came from the need to decrease long lines as seen in Georgia and Wisconsin. But stadium voting advocates say the arena can also offer a safe, socially-distant voting space.

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With 31 venues offering early voting and ballot drop-off, arenas hope to scatter voters across days, even weeks. But for the 13 stadiums that will only offer voting on Election Day, logistics could pose a challenge. Hosting a large number of voters from multiple precincts in a massive stadium for the first time ever does not sound like an easy feat.

Even though voting by mail will see record numbers this year, millions of Americans will still opt to cast their vote at the polls, as they always do. Many voters may physically cast their ballot because they are more likely to trust an in-person vote instead of vote by mail. Other voters may not trust mail-in voting because they believe in the widely debunked theory, pushed by the President of the United States, that vote by mail will lead to large-scale election fraud. But for Americans who opt to vote in person, long lines could await, especially for voters of color.

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Atlanta’s State Farm Arena sees a line on the first day of early voting.
Image: (Getty Images)

“The most reliable indicator of how long someone has to wait in line to vote is the racial makeup of the neighborhood that they voted,” Ufot says.

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Minority communities will see a threat at the polls with voter suppression and a threat to their health due to this pandemic. 80 percent of Georgians who have been hospitalized are people of color. And according to the CDC’s national database, Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are around 4.6-times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than whites. And Blacks are twice as likely to die from the virus.

It is often said that voting is a “sacred” right. But health, especially in a pandemic, is sacred, too.

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“It’s really critical that in a moment like this, people don’t have to choose between their fundamental right to vote and their safety and health,” Hannah Klain, an equal justice fellow specializing in voter suppression at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Deadspin.

She recently published a report with the Infectious Diseases Society of America on guidelines for healthy in-person voting.

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“We’ve certainly recommended the use of arenas in conjunction with a number of other things to mitigate some of the challenges that we’re facing because of the unique situation we’re in,” Klain says.

There will be no perfect in-person voting solution this year, arenas included. No place is immune from the virus, and long lines and faulty machines may emerge in your local venue in a few weeks. Crazier things have happened.

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But when arenas become spaces that provide more ways for the new American majority to participate in democracy, Ufot thinks stadium voting is a first step worth taking.

“I’m encouraged to see people doing what they can,” she says, “I don’t see how that hurts in this moment.”

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