Sports Teams Have a More Powerful Voter Turnout Tool Than Their Stadiums

Cities like Milwaukee are nixing plans to open their arenas to voters. But the teams are still running a better play.

Three masked people stand in a socially distanced line to vote on the basketball court of an empty stadium
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

On Sept. 29, Andrew Hitt, the chair of the Wisconsin state Republican Party, sent an open letter to Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, to express his concern about the potential presence of sports mascots (including the Brewers’ racing sausages) at early voting centers.

That letter concerned the use of two sports venues—the Brewers’ Miller Park and the Bucks’ Fiserv Forum—as early voting sites. In it, Hitt argued that the mere appearance of mascots would constitute electioneering under Wisconsin state law.

Woodall-Vogg told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Hitt’s assertion was “ludicrous.”

And that’s how it seemed at first, like an absurd joke. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t funny at all. Last week, the Milwaukee Election Commission announced that it was withdrawing the two sports facilities as early voting sites, citing the fear that they would be vulnerable to legal challenges, and that any votes cast there could be retroactively invalidated by a court. In electoral politics, the line between comedy and tragedy is very blurry. The surreal mascot letter was not the reason the facilities were shut down—but it turned out to be a prescient warning shot.

Miller Park and Fiserv Forum were set to be just two among dozens of sports stadiums, arenas, and practice facilities that are, for the first time, going to become cogs in the democratic process. Adapting these sites for voting is the result of a player-led movement that began with the Milwaukee Bucks and their wildcat strike in the NBA bubble after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The rest of the NBA’s players joined the Bucks’ action, which in turn inspired similar strikes across the sports world. Before play resumed in the NBA, the Players Association and the league agreed to a series of conditions; chief among them was the use of arenas as voting sites. Following that agreement, voting became the central focus of the league’s activism, and many players have described the stadium plan as a crucial pillar of their initiatives. Although the Milwaukee sites were taken out of commission, more than a dozen other NBA facilities will still serve in some capacity for voting.

At a time when voter suppression continues to be an electoral strategy for one of the two major parties, and the coronavirus pandemic has made in-person voting riskier and more challenging, it seems like a good and intuitive idea to use stadiums as polling places. Not only are they physically huge—capable of holding many voters at a comfortable, seemingly safe distance from one another—they also hold symbolic power. These buildings are some of the biggest and most recognizable in our cities, and many of them are constructed with taxpayer dollars. They are, at their best, palaces of civic unity.

They are also symbols of what we value as a society. Arenas are expensive and lavish. And if we are now using them as part of the democratic process, then that is a sign that we are committing significant collective resources to our democracy that we haven’t in the past. In that sense, the arenas themselves are not really the catalyst—so much as they are a lagging indicator of heightened civic engagement. To facilitate voting, experts say that the arenas themselves will only help so much. More important is the tide of poll workers and volunteers that could fill them and spread into neighboring precincts and voting sites.

Milwaukee is still recovering from an April primary that was utterly disastrous. A shortage in poll workers due to COVID fears led the city to go from 182 planned neighborhood polling places to just five on Election Day. The result was chaos, long lines, and exceptionally low turnout.

“The fiasco that we had in April and Milwaukee in particular was really hard to take and hard to even see,” said Chris Ott, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “It was really an embarrassment for our city—for our state really—that we were asking people to vote under those conditions.”

The incorporation of Fiserv Forum and Miller Park seemed like it would be part of a solution. More than that, opening the venues to voters would reveal a city whose biggest stakeholders and institutions were excited about supporting civic engagement.

In a phone interview conducted before Fiserv Forum was canceled as a voting site, Milwaukee Bucks vice president Alex Lasry—whose father Marc co-owns the team—told Slate that he would like to see the arena used as a polling place not just in presidential and midterm elections, but in local races for years to come.

“Hopefully you’ll be able to say, ‘I came in here when Giannis hit the game winner, and this is where I came to vote in one of the most consequential elections in American history,’ ” he said.

But as the Milwaukee case proves, the process of transforming sports venues into polling places is logistically and legally challenging in ways that go beyond even the demonization of mascots by Republicans bent on suppressing voter turnout in cities. The consequences of federal elections may be national, but their execution is very local. The 50 states each have their own election laws and systems, and this year (and perhaps beyond) cities and counties must adapt to coronavirus precautions. On top of all that, highly contested laws can change on the whim of a judge as late as Election Day itself.

The Bucks and Brewers are both winning franchises with superstar players in powerful global sports leagues. But in the context of Wisconsin election law, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Christian Yelich don’t count for much. Lasry expressed his disappointment on Twitter:

But does it matter? Would adding sports stadiums to these systems have actually moved voters to turn out in greater numbers and benefited democracy, as the athletes and organizations driving these initiatives purport? Or was the stadiums’ brief inclusion as potential voter sites a trailing sign of a society that is already more fired up about voting, more aware of the structural barriers to the franchise, and more organized in dismantling those barriers than it was only a year ago?

Voting in Wisconsin is challenging even under normal circumstances. The state is heavily gerrymandered, and a convoluted voter ID law has been in effect since 2011. The shape of that law is constantly being remade in the courts. Sometimes in the run-up to an election, multiple decisions affecting how Wisconsinites will vote come out each day.

“You go to bed at night and the law is one way,” said Anita Johnson of Souls to the Polls, a Milwaukee organization committed to reaching voters through inner-city churches. “You wake up the next morning and it has changed.”

Johnson has worked as a voting rights advocate in Milwaukee for decades. She says she has seen more concern about disenfranchisement than usual from voters this cycle. There is more excitement about voting—and with that excitement more awareness of how the process works, and how things can go wrong.

The national wave of protests against racist police violence—including the shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha—has put the stakes of this election into even starker relief. It’s the protest movement, after all, and the ensuing focus by LeBron James and other public figures on the vote, that led directly to the widespread use of sports venues as polling places. This summer, when James announced the formation of More Than a Vote—an organization dedicated to protecting and turning out the Black vote—the biggest early headlines described the group’s successful push to use NBA facilities as voting sites.

As a high-profile initiative with the specific goal of getting out the vote, it’s tempting to think that the stadium polling sites would cause higher turnout and participation—but they may be more of an effect of the many other forces driving high voter engagement this cycle.

“I think it’s a combination of widespread national interest in racial justice and the pandemic happening simultaneously [driving engagement]—and the fact that these arenas aren’t actually being used for sports [that] makes them available,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founding director of its Elections Research Center. “So it’s sort of a perfect storm of all these things coming together that’s made it sort of a natural extension for teams to make.”

Souls to the Polls has a stated goal of turning out 100,000 voters in Milwaukee. Anita Johnson is confident the group will meet it, in part by encouraging parishioners to go vote early and avoid the lines on Nov. 3. In Milwaukee, this is exactly where the Bucks wanted to fit in. But it’s also how they still can fit in. Because the real value the Bucks and Brewers were bringing to Milwaukee’s electoral operation was not necessarily the physical voting space; it was the manpower associated with it—the teams’ direct assistance with and explicit endorsement of volunteering and voting early.

The experts I spoke with—from Johnson in Milwaukee to elections experts like Burden and Kevin Morris of the Brennan Center for Justice, who wrote a report about Milwaukee’s disastrous April primary—said they believed that most voters would probably vote at the place most convenient for them, even if it’s not as glamorous as a pro sports facility.

“I don’t think [stadiums] are likely to turn out huge numbers of new voters who otherwise wouldn’t be voting somewhere else,” said Burden, even before Fiserv Forum and Miller Park were nixed as voting sites.

Still, it’s worth considering why things went badly during the April primary. It was not that Milwaukee lacked polling sites; it was that the city lacked the workers to keep those sites open. Burden drew an analogy between the public health problems of the pandemic and the election problems incurred by cities managing COVID-19: “We’ve talked a lot about flattening the curve with the pandemic, trying to spread out the cases over lots of time and lots of places so we aren’t stressing the health care system. And the same can be true of the voting system. By having people vote on lots of different days and in lots of different places, you reduce the stress on Election Day itself in terms of lines and pressures on poll workers to run those polling places.”

The role stadiums play in flattening the voting curve varies from city to city, depending on a combination of local law, ownership interest, and arena availability. When early voting started in Georgia on Oct. 12, some suburban counties saw huge backups and daylong waits. But in Atlanta’s Fulton County, there were fewer problems—in part because State Farm Arena, home of the Hawks, was opened as an early voting site with free parking for voters. Voters there encountered relatively short lines, and the sight of Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce working as a volunteer. Nearly 130,000 people cast ballots on the first day of early voting in Georgia, surpassing the first-day record set in 2016, despite the fact that some of the state’s polling sites were closed for Columbus Day. Next week, when early voting begins in Florida, the Orlando Magic will open the Amway Center in downtown Orlando. In Detroit, the Lions are offering Ford Field as a staging site and secure warehouse for ballots and equipment. Nevertheless, Milwaukee is not the only city where teams’ efforts have been stymied. In Houston, the Texans offered NRG Stadium up as a site for Harris County voters to drop off mail-in ballots—a helpful step. But now, thanks to an order from Gov. Greg Abbott restricting mail-in ballot drop-off locations, NRG Stadium is Harris County’s only drop-off location.

In Milwaukee, election officials anticipate that more than half of ballots will be cast by absentee voters, either via mail, designated drop-off locations, or in-person early voting. In essence, a world in which Fiserv Forum and Miller Park are even being considered as voting sites is a world that is already funneling more of the necessary resources to its electoral system. After the debacle in April, Milwaukee appears to be on pace to have plenty of poll workers on Nov. 3, and to be ready to process the deluge of early ballots. The Washington Post reported that most of its absent volunteers from April will be back—plus thousands more.

The biggest contribution from the Bucks might not be their arena, but the paid days off that they are giving for staff who volunteer as poll workers. Likewise, LeBron James’ most important accomplishment this election may not be championing the stadiums, but the recent news that More Than a Vote has already recruited 10,000 poll workers, and that it has plans to recruit more in targeted cities throughout the country.

“This is a huge deal,” Morris said. “Most poll workers are seniors, and all around the country there’s been a crunch because they’re (understandably) nervous about getting sick. Insofar as these initiatives are increasing the numbers of younger poll workers, they’ll be able to keep polling places open around the country—from stadiums and arenas to local elementary schools.”

In Wisconsin, a heavily Republican Legislature has refused to consider changes to make voting more accessible amid the pandemic. Last month, a federal judge issued a series of rulings that would have eased the burden on some voters: allowing poll workers to volunteer outside their counties of residence; allowing ballots postmarked on Election Day (Nov. 3) to be counted if they arrived by Nov. 9; extending the registration deadline from Oct. 14 to Oct. 21. Last week, those rulings were overturned by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter that citizens, political activists, and major civic players like the Bucks want to expand voting access in Milwaukee. The power is not in their hands to do so—at least not right now. That power resides principally among the elected officials and judges who set the rules of the game. The only thing anyone else can do is wield their influence to encourage as many people as possible to register and to vote, and to get out and staff the designated polling places that already exist. The racing sausages, Bernie Brewer, and Bango the Buck may not be allowed to draw people into early voting sites. But they can always step out of their costumes and work the polls.

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