There are very few voting rights issues that can garner bipartisan support. But rooting for your favorite sports team is still largely free of politics. And, it turns out, so is using sports stadiums as polling sites.
It’s hard to run an election in normal times, let alone during a global pandemic and in a period of extreme political polarization. The need to innovate in 2020, however, created some good news: Americans love voting at stadiums almost as much as they love the teams that play there. Sports stadiums or arenas are an ideal location to house in-person voting. We should expand their use and encourage teams to create a festive atmosphere while voting is taking place.
Those are some of the main takeaways of an important new report by scholars from five institutions and supported by the Civic Responsibility Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping business leaders and other nonprofits expand civic engagement. The authors—experts in democracy reform—studied the use of sports stadiums in 2020 and came to a significant conclusion: Virtually everyone loves them. (Disclosure: I consulted on the project.)
Election officials scrambled in 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, to run polling places safely, allowing for social distancing and proper air circulation. Stadiums were ideal venues. In addition, many Black athletes urged their teams to be leaders for social justice in the wake of the George Floyd murder and other atrocities committed against Black Americans, giving teams an impetus to become involved. In total, election officials used 48 professional baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, and football stadiums and arenas as polling sites in 2020. Election administrators also turned to college football stadiums.
These locations are ideal: They are large, have ample parking, and are near mass transit. They are ADA compliant and therefore can assist persons with disabilities. They are equipped to funnel thousands of people through their facilities. People generally trust their local sports teams (even if they might lament management decisions—such as my current beef with my beloved Washington Nationals trading away the all-star shortstop Trea Turner last year). Stadiums are particularly well suited as Vote Centers, which allow voters to go to any polling location that is most convenient to them instead of being assigned to a specific precinct. They can reduce wait times significantly. The Atlanta Hawks’ home, State Farm Arena in Atlanta, saw an average wait time of 26 minutes in 2020, compared to more than four hours in other locations around the county.
The researchers interviewed team and election officials to learn what worked and whether stadiums are a viable solution in the future. The results are somewhat astounding in today’s political environment, given that almost every voting rule creates partisan fissures. There was widespread agreement that using stadiums worked well. As an added benefit for teams, the use of their venues helped to instill “a positive attitude that seemingly reflects sports franchises’ new attitude toward civic engagement.”
Researchers found that both Democrats and Republicans went to the sports facilities to vote, with no partisan or demographic advantage for any group. Survey data, too, showed widespread support, with 77 percent of all respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” supporting the idea, including 86 percent of Democratic respondents, 66 percent of Republican respondents, and 71 percent of those who are unaffiliated.
Expanding the use of stadiums as Vote Centers is a no-brainer. So what’s next? In 2020, stadium voting locations appeared mostly in urban areas, but rural America also has college football stadiums, basketball arenas, or minor league ballparks. The researchers note that the most significant benefit of stadiums is that they can ease the logistical quagmire of voting. But they also explain that sports teams can go even further to make the voting experience positive. The Washington Nationals, for example, set up voting booths so voters could see the field and even take pictures with the 2019 World Series trophy. The Charlotte Panthers handed out face masks with the team’s logo to voters, and the Los Angeles Dodgers hired mariachi bands.
Voting should be easy and fun, and sports teams can facilitate both. In Australia (where they have compulsory voting), Election Day comes with “sausage sizzle” parties at polling sites, with citizens lining up to vote and enjoy their “democracy sausage.” We need to replicate that same joyous atmosphere around voting in the United States. (Maybe we should have democracy apple pies available.) There are laws, of course, that prohibit giving voters something of value in exchange for their vote due to our country’s history of vote buying. But that should not stop teams from upping their civic game by allowing their venues to become voting sites that are efficient, safe, and fun.
Baseball is America’s pastime. So is voting. Combining them is a grand slam for democracy.