More than 40 arenas, stadiums and ballparks across the NBA, the WNBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer are being used for election-related purposes.
The effort, in many cases spearheaded by the professional athletes who compete in the venues, is designed to increase voting opportunities, with a particular focus on Black and Latino voters who continue to face voter suppression.
While the pandemic has created a need for bigger venues for voting, it has also left such large arenas dormant and available.
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Coupled with expanded early voting in many counties, which has led to record voter turnout, the size of the large venues is intended to give more people the chance to vote safely. The locations are able to house hundreds of voting machines and booths and to accommodate more voters while still allowing for social distancing as Covid-19 case numbers spike across the country.
In many cases, arenas, stadiums and ballparks are being used as supplemental voting locations where any residents in a city or county can vote regardless of the districts or precincts they live in. However, in some cases, the larger venues are replacing smaller polling places in residential neighborhoods, which can, in effect, hurt the very voters they're trying to help.
"It depends on how many polling places are open in each city and how easy it is for people to get to these stadiums," said Alison Parker, U.S. managing director at Human Rights Watch. "If they're being used as a replacement because they're large and people think they can close some of the locations they've previously used, that runs contrary to voting access."
In Washington, D.C., the Board of Elections weighed the benefits of closing a voting center venue it had planned to use and replacing it with a larger "super vote center" in Ward 8, a part of the city that is made up largely of Black residents. Ward 8's super vote center is in the Entertainment and Sports Arena, or ESA, home of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, whose players have advocated to increase voting opportunities for Black voters.
"We took data from one voting center in the district that had been very minimally used in past elections and that was in close proximity to another polling place," said Nick Jacobs, the D.C. Board of Elections' public information officer. "We stacked that against a huge number of machines and voting opportunities at ESA, which is also in Ward 8, and determined it was overwhelmingly providing more opportunities for minority voters."
To create that super vote center, the D.C. Board of Elections ultimately decided to trim all of the city's voting locations slightly, taking about one machine from each and reallocating them to Ward 8.
Super centers, which are new this year in Washington, are open for early voting, have expanded hours and can accommodate many more voters, Jacobs said, which it is hoped will create more opportunities for historically disenfranchised voters to cast their ballots.
However, because of the pandemic, Washington has fewer voting centers than it has had in past years, including 2016. For instance, in 2016, there were 17 smaller voting centers and one early voting center in Ward 8. This year, there are 13 larger voting centers, but five of them are set up for early voting, including the super center.
The reallocation of resources to fewer, larger polling places occurred across all wards and resulted in the decision to allow anyone registered to vote in Washington to cast ballots at any voting center, irrespective of which wards they live in.
In some cases, the larger venues are replacing smaller polling places in residential neighborhoods — which can hurt the voters they're trying to help.
While there are fewer polling places, there are more physical voting machines in this election and more opportunities to vote early. In Ward 8, there are 92 ballot marking devices and 21 ballot scanners this year, compared to 34 ballot marking devices and 17 ballot scanners in 2016.
In Florida, the Amway Center, home to the NBA's Orlando Magic, is being used as an early voting site, replacing another site in a different part of Orange County that became unavailable. The Amway Center is downtown, close to "the African American community of Parramore ... a minority, low-income and highly transitory rental community," said Bill Cowles, the county's supervisor of elections.
Parker of Human Rights Watch said the most important thing is to open as many distinct polling locations as possible to offer voters convenient options close to where they live or work. She said it's also key to recognize that large venues can't solve disenfranchisement completely, especially because they carry risks as well as benefits during a pandemic.
On one hand, bigger event spaces could increase the risk of spreading Covid-19, because they allow for large groups to congregate. On the other hand, because of their size, they can also enable greater social distancing, a key measure in preventing spread. The duality is particularly important when considering voting access for minorities for two reasons, Parker said.
Research suggests that minorities, especially Black people, are "disproportionately affected" by Covid-19. Research also shows that, given the history of disenfranchisement in the U.S., many minority voters prefer to vote in person so they can physically see their ballots being collected and mitigate the risk that their mail-in ballots won't be counted because of a technicality. Understanding the vulnerability to Covid-19 and the preference in voting style is essential to better protecting the right to vote, Parker said.
Human Rights Watch conducted an investigation into state primaries held early on during the pandemic.
"What we found is that when polling stations are closed, even if others open, that can suppress the vote, because people may not have access to transportation or they may prefer to go to polling places they know and have used before," Parker said.
When polling stations are closed, even if others open, that can suppress the vote, because people may not have access to transportation or they may prefer to go to places they know and have used before.
While many counties have opted for fewer, larger venues because of the pandemic, some arenas are being used to supplement voting locations that have been used in the past. Such is the case with the Sacramento Kings' Golden 1 Center, which is being used as an additional venue.
It can accommodate 118 people inside the voting area, and it is near housing for largely Chinese- and Spanish-speaking populations, as well as services for people with disabilities, said Courtney Bailey-Kanelos, registrar of voters for Sacramento County, California.
Parker said some voters, especially older or disabled people, may be uncomfortable using public transportation or may be unable to do so.
For voters who are able or willing to travel, sports venues provide a unique benefit in that many are designed to be easily accessible by public transit on game days. That's something Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, said factored in to the decision to use the team's arena as an early voting location.
"We are adjacent to public transportation and walking distance to several lower-income communities," Cuban said in an email.
Cuban is covering all costs, and most of the venues being used for voting are having their expenses covered by team or stadium owners, which Parker said could help increase voting opportunities even more.
"If the stadiums are being provided or donated as an additional location — not a replacement and not a consolidated venue — hopefully that saves the election board money to rent additional locations, provide personal protective equipment or offer more pay so younger people will be willing to man the polls," Parker said.
Parker said any efforts to combat voter suppression and provide opportunities for voters of color should be multipronged. Voting issues caused by the pandemic — such as the closing of smaller polling places and the shortage of poll workers, typically older people who are more vulnerable to Covid-19 — have particularly dire repercussions for communities of color, said Michael Tyler, executive vice president of public affairs for the nonprofit More Than A Vote.
A lack of poll workers in the April primary led Milwaukee to close all but five of its 182 polling places. The closings translated to a reduction in voting among Black voters by about 10.2 percentage points, according to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The researchers concluded that "conversion to widespread absentee voting in the general election will result in disenfranchisement, which may be particularly marked among racial minorities."
Similar issues arose in primaries in Atlanta, where hourslong waits, voting machine issues and ballot shortages plagued voters in majority-minority counties, and in Detroit, where voting issues were more pronounced in Black communities.
To address these key issues, fight voter suppression and reverse the drop in Black voter turnout seen during the 2016 election, several prominent Black athletes and artists, including LeBron James, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Kevin Hart, created More Than A Vote. The group created an election advisory council with government officials and partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to recruit young poll workers to fill spots left vacant by the older people who usually work the polls.
In all, more than 42,000 poll workers have been recruited, and cities like Atlanta and Philadelphia, which normally have shortages, found themselves in the unique position of having to turn people away.
"Using arenas that are in the heart of the communities we're trying to serve is just one pillar. It's also about recruiting poll workers and combating misinformation," Tyler said. "It's clear that the latest mode of voter suppression is the pandemic, which continues to disproportionately harm the communities also impacted by voter suppression, so it's about solving for both the public health crisis and inequity."