In 2020, the particularly heated presidential election took place in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, pre-vaccines, when many people people were cautious about congregating indoors with others. And yet, the general election boasted the highest turnout of the 21st century, with 67% of people of voting age casting ballots.
While many states expanded mail-in voting, resulting in almost half of all voters casting ballots by mail, people also voted in person at locations that weren’t the typical churches, libraries, or school cafeterias. For the first time, owners of sports stadiums across the country volunteered their massive arenas for democratic purposes, providing safe and cheap places for 300,000 people to participate (largely in early voting) while still social distancing, as well as taking advantage of more accessible venues and experienced staff. A new report breaks down some benefits created by the stadium voting, and calls for them to open again for coming elections. “I’m genuinely surprised these venues weren’t utilized as polling places sooner,” says Ashley Spillane, founder of the Civic Responsibility Project, which supported and published the research, in an email.
It was precisely the upheaval of 2020 that moved Steve Koonin, CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, to be the first to open his doors to voting. “All these people were out in the street expressing their displeasure at what had happened,” he says of the George Floyd protests. “And it just struck me that the only way change truly happens in societies is by voting.” The sheer capacity of the basketball arena–700,000 square feet in size–was appealing. “We turned it into a library on steroids,” he says. For the 50,000 that voted at the State Farm Arena, wait time was on average 26 minutes, versus up to four hours in traditional polling places in Fulton County, Georgia, which ended up a critical county in deciding the race for Joe Biden.
Forty-seven other venues joined the Hawks, from Fenway Park in Boston to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to five Los Angeles stadiums. Lucas Oil, home of the Indianapolis Colts, was the biggest stadium, offering 56 machines and 1,200 parking spaces. The report found that 77% of voters support stadium voting, specifically liking the short wait times, and the accessibility. State Farm Arena offered free parking in its huge lots, and reopened the nearby train station after it had been closed due to the pandemic, also offering free rides. The arena was also easier for people with disabilities to navigate. “We tried to knock down every obstacle, barrier, objection that somebody might have,” Koonin says.
Stadium staff also became vital for processing voters, thanks to their experience with security and crowd control. Other team staff signed on as poll workers; 15 of his staff also became certified poll managers, he says.
In such an odd year, the stadium setups also made life easier for election officials, like Michael Dickerson, director of elections in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which encompasses Charlotte and has about 800,000 registered voters. The state’s turnout rate was 75% in 2020, higher than the national average. The homes of the Hornets, Panthers, and the smaller Bojangles Coliseum all signed up to host voting. Dickerson says the know-how of the staff was a particularly useful. “It was just very fluid, and especially in the midst of a COVID pandemic when we’re all scared to death,” he says. “They knew what they were doing.” He also says the election benefitted from free advertising. “Now it’s on the sports page,” he says, drawing people out who may not traditionally pay attention to more political news.
Some stadiums turned voting into a sports event. Dodger Stadium provided music via mariachi bands, and others gave away “team swag” like face masks with logos. At Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, they took selfies of voters and projected them onto the Jumbotron. Not all venues did that. After hearing about officials shutting down Milwaukee locations due to mascots (after Wisconsin’s Republican chairman said the mascots might be electioneering), State Farm decided against entertainment. “That’s not what voting is,” Koonin says. “That’s what basketball is.” (Though, they did convert the peach on the state’s traditional “I Voted” sticker into a basketball.)
A major finding of the report was that there was no discernible partisan advantage. Experts had originally thought it might benefit Democratic and nonwhite turnout, but that proved untrue; for instance, in L.A., more Democrats voted in stadiums than other places, but in Washington, D.C., more Republicans did so. However, more Democrats than Republicans support stadium voting in general (86% to 66%); opponents cited concerns that it enables fraud, that voting should be local, and that it diverts resources from other polling places. Spillane said there was no evidence of voter fraud, and adds that, due to the large scale, most stadiums were among the most heavily monitored in the country. (Because most of the stadiums were used for early voting, they served voters from a wider area than just the precinct the stadium was located in—as is the case for all early voting sites.)
Part of the report’s purpose is to persuade sports teams to offer their stadiums as polling places in future elections. Spillane says all the venues have expressed interest for 2024. However, while Koonin aims for the Hawks’ home to host in that presidential election, it will not participate in midterm voting this year, due to the disruption to the basketball schedule; it was easier in 2020, when the NBA played in a bubble in Florida, and so State Farm was able to provide 19 days of early voting. In Georgia, Election Day voting must take place in your precinct, so they can’t just open up for the single day. In states with different rules, the report recommends that Election Day becomes a blackout day for sports games.
Mecklenburg County hasn’t yet confirmed midterm stadium voting, but Dickerson remains hopeful. He suggests that even if it clashes with games, fans could arrive early and vote pre-match. He values the private partnership in the democratic process. “They were just being good corporate citizens,” he says. “You can’t really ask for much more than that.”