For Eugene Jarecki, the raging COVID-19 pandemic that emptied sports arenas across the country has suddenly emerged as an opportunity to drastically reimagine how Americans approach Election Day.
Jarecki, an award-winning independent filmmaker, thinks the empty stadiums could provide a solution to the fact that traditional polling places lack the capacity to implement CDC guidelines for social distancing.
Concerns that manipulation of the Postal Service may tarnish the effectiveness of voting by mail make the idea of turning empty stadiums into easily accessible election super centers even more appealing. Jarecki thinks these arenas could be the solution for worried election officials.
“There is all this magnificent space that could be used as a kind of colosseum-sized solution to making sure that there are supplemental voting opportunities for Americans all across the country,” Jarecki told WhoWhatWhy. “A pandemic creates a democratic emergency.”
Worried that long lines would be likely to endanger voters’ health, Jarecki joined the National Vote at Home Institute to create the Election Super Centers Project, a nonpartisan initiative to help as many teams as possible work with election officials to transform their arenas into massive voting centers on Election Day.
“It also works before Election Day when there’s early voting, as a drop-box location, [and] there’ll be registration sites as well,” Jarecki said. “We’re sort of building the plane while flying.”
National Basketball Association star players supercharged the movement when they staged a strike during a night of playoff games following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in Kenosha, WI. The NBA and its player association released a joint statement the following day announcing that their arenas will become voting centers this November.
In states where the deadline to establish polling sites has already passed, the NBA teams said they were ready to establish voter registration and mail-in ballot drop-off locations at the arenas. At least 16 teams to date have offered their arenas, and several professional football and baseball teams are considering similar plans.
“When in history have you ever seen a collective bargaining event in American life end up collective bargaining to get an outcome that wasn’t for the benefit of the strikers? They struck to get everybody else a voting benefit,” Jarecki said.
The project intends to provide greater security and safety, and also to add a supplemental level to the existing voting infrastructure. The arenas already have the capacity to handle mass numbers of people, and they have the space for people to avoid COVID-compromised situations while waiting to vote. The group hopes the project will create better access to voting for two to three million Americans this year and change attitudes toward voting. If successful this year, future elections could be carried out at these popular locations.
“It depends a little bit on the athleticism of the arenas and the election boards of getting it set up, but election boards want to have a successful vote so they want to have a really successful day,” Jarecki said. “It’s an amazing relief valve on the existing system to put it under less pressure.”
Despite the best intentions, some teams are already encountering logistical problems. In Massachusetts, the Boston Celtics tried to turn their arena into a polling place for the September 1 primary election but weren’t allowed because voters are required to know where to vote at least 20 days before an election. And, on Friday, the Miami Heat announced that their arena was rejected by local election officials without explanation despite being a “better site, with more visibility, more space, and more parking.”
Where state and local laws are not an obstacle, availability of poll workers may be another issue. Most volunteers to run polling stations tend to be older and are at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. The Election Super Centers Project is actively working with arenas to recruit furloughed workers and train them to be poll workers. Jarecki said that he hopes to see professional athletes volunteer as well.
“It’s also something for the community that you can go and work with your team,” Jarecki said. “Somebody who might not have thought to be a poll worker under traditional conditions might think, ‘Well, this is a huge national event. This is really exciting. I love my team, I love my arena, I’d love to be a poll worker there.’”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Chris Yarzab / Flickr(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).