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Welcoming voters, not fans: Sports teams push for stadiums to become polling sites

The Houston Rockets' Toyota Center is a go, while the Miami Heat got stuffed, and they're not happy.
A view of the exterior of the Toyota Center prior to the start of a game between the Houston Rockets and the Boston Celtics.
The Toyota Center before a game between the Houston Rockets and the Boston Celtics in 2013.Scott Halleran / Getty Images file

Professional sports teams and voting advocates want to make casting ballots this fall a slam dunk by turning stadiums and arenas across the country into polling places.

But with the hubbub over newly offered stadium voting reaching a fever pitch, the question of how exactly this will work remains a question for many.

With several of the stadiums and arenas set to open for voting in some of the nation's most critical swing states this fall, their impact on the election could be substantial.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, the facilities allow for physical distancing that may not be possible at traditional polling places. And with many of the venues located within inner cities where polling places are often plagued by long lines, their availability may draw in voters who otherwise would not or could not spend hours waiting to cast their ballots.

"I want to get between 50 and 100 arenas open across the country," said Eugene Jarecki, co-chair of the Election Super Centers Project. "I think each one of them can process about 40,000 people. So do the math on how huge that could be."

The Election Super Centers Project, a joint venture of the Silver Linings Group and the National Vote at Home Institute, has spent much of the summer securing stadium spaces across the four major professional sports leagues. Now, Jarecki says, the group is seeking out large college venues, as well.

Their effort comes in conjunction with one led by More Than a Vote, a group headed by NBA superstar LeBron James and other celebrities, who helped bring the Atlanta Hawks and the Los Angeles Dodgers into the fold this summer.

As Jarecki said, the venues allow for jurisdictions to bring in massive supplemental voting places that can also be parts of any contingency plans should other polling stations have to close. Arena owners will foot the bill to have the spaces up and running, while local boards of election will have to provide the ballots, voting machines and other infrastructure.

"The whole idea is simply that this is a familiar space," he said. "People love their arenas. They know their teams. They want to vote with their teams."

The thinking behind the idea, which voting rights advocates have promoted for some time, is that with the coronavirus pandemic and many of the venues drawing either no fans or events this fall, now is the perfect time to temporarily transform the large spaces into voting locations.

The effort got a boost last month when the NBA and the players association announced that, as part of their deal to continue the league's postseason following a player-led walkout after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, team owners would work to using NBA facilities for electoral purposes in every city where franchises own and control their arenas.

Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, said election officials had "begged for situations like this" to become a reality for years.

"So, seeing the NBA or other businesses step up and offer this to support local election officials, it's incredible to see that offer of support come out," said McReynolds, a former election official in Denver, adding, "Everyone knows where these big locations lie within the jurisdictions, which makes (them) extremely valuable."

As of Monday, about 20 of the league's franchises will use their home courts, practice facilities or nearby venues for election purposes this fall. What exactly can take place in the facilities depends on their partnerships with the local boards of election, state laws and certain deadlines for designation.

Seven of the venues so far have been designated as voting centers, where any voter registered within the county can show up and cast a ballot. Some will serve as early voting sites, while still others will be used as specific voting precincts on Election Day.

One of the voting centers will be in Houston's Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins praised the team for its efforts to turn its home into a voting center, which he said will be open for early voting, too. The team will even allow its parking garage to be used for drive-thru voting.

"We were very, very pleased and impressed with how the Rockets sort of opened up the doors to us," he said. "They were selling us more than we were selling them."

He said the advantages of using the arena include its convenient parking and physical distancing capabilities. In addition, he said younger voters might take the chance to cast ballots at the home of their favorite team when, otherwise, they might not have showed up.

"Our hope is that a partnership like this, the allure of being able to cast your vote at a place like the Toyota Center, where (fans have) great memories tied to their heroes, gives people one more reason to come out" and vote, Hollins said.

But elsewhere, the gestures have not necessarily been met with open arms. In Miami, for instance, the NBA's Miami Heat were recently informed by local government that the American Airlines Arena would not be used for polling. Instead, the team was informed that the Frost Science Museum would be designated as a voting locale, instead.

"We were under the impression that approval was imminent," the Heat said in a statement. "To say we are disappointed is a huge understatement. The Arena is clearly a better site, with more visibility, more space, and more parking. 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."

In response, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez said the science center was selected because of "its accessibility and experience with early voting," adding, "I fully support that choice."

In Pennsylvania, local officials will not, at least for now, be using venues that are home to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Penguins for balloting.

"We have no doubt that the Steelers, or any of the other operators of arenas and venues in this county would be willing to work with us," Amie Downs, communications director for Allegheny County, home of Pittsburgh, said in a statement. "Polling places in Pennsylvania; however, are intended to be local and in the neighborhoods of voters. This is so that it's convenient for those individuals to vote."

Jarecki of the Election Super Centers Project said the venues that will be open to voters provide a "coliseum-size answer to the various threats that we perceive as challenges to the American voter this year."

"The most important thing it does is it assures voter access for hopefully millions of Americans who otherwise might face challenges or concerns this year, partly because of the pandemic and partly because of the murmurings they hear in the press about whether the post office is being subverted ... whether voting machines are being ripped out, whether the president seems to be encouraging vigilante policing the streets," he said.

"Our job as a nonpartisan group that just wants to see Americans vote is we want to give people the safest options and the greatest flexibility and the greatest sense of confidence in where and how they can vote," he said.