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Sports associations and election administrators work together to create new polling stations – Ash Center

In 2020, election officials scrambled to adapt voting processes to a socially distanced world during an exceptionally volatile presidential election, and they found an unexpected partner in sports teams from the major and minor leagues, who opened their stadium doors to create safe and convenient polling places. That November, 48 stadiums and arenas across the U.S. were used for voting, and Tova Wang, senior researcher in democratic practice at the Ash Center, wondered “if that had any impact on the process.” As an expert in voting rights and elections (and a self-described “very big sports fan”), she began collaborating with four other academics to evaluate the experience and effectiveness of voting in sports facilities.

“We put together a report … that shows how great this all went for everybody — for the poll officials, for the voters, the teams were excited,” she said at a virtual stadium voting event hosted by the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “It was just great all around because the officials had these huge facilities. They were able to set up a lot of machines and there was plenty of parking. The teams … they know how to get lines moving.” She also noted that it was often a pleasant experience — which is not always the case with in-person voting.

Scott Pioli, a former NFL executive and current NFL analyst and consultant, and Wang's partner on the project, joined the discussion. Pioli, a longtime advocate for equity, social justice and civic engagement, recalled his involvement in efforts to use sports facilities as polling places. When he moved to Georgia in 2014 for a job with the Atlanta Falcons, he went to the nearest polling place to vote. There, he waited for over an hour in the rain in near-freezing temperatures and was eventually forced to leave. He drove to a more affluent area where he was greeted with refreshments, then immediately cast his vote.

Shaken by the experience, he recalled his thoughts: “We have this stadium here, we have this arena here, we have built all these things in the middle of these communities where many people live who are marginalized in many ways… [so] why aren't we using these facilities that were built with taxpayer money? … Why aren't we using these facilities that were built by the people for the people?” Pioli brought his suggestions to the nonprofit organization RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality), where he serves on the board, “and that got this whole discussion going.”

Elections are not a lot of fun right now, they're very, very, very stressful. And I think these kinds of partnerships can be a feel-good thing for everyone.


Tova Wang

Senior Researcher for Democratic Practice

Ultimately, the 2020 stadium election proved to be wildly successful, with Wang noting, “Elections are not a lot of fun right now; they're very, very, very stressful. And I think that these kinds of partnerships, in turn… can be a feel-good thing for everybody.” Pioli echoed her sentiment, adding that the teams also benefited from the experience because “they had the opportunity to really live out for a day or more the value that most teams talk about, which is engaging with their community at a grassroots level.” He noted the irony that taxpayers fund places they often can't afford to visit, and that the stadium election provides a rare opportunity to make those places accessible to all.

The most notable finding of the study was the general feeling that in-stadium voting worked well for everyone, regardless of party affiliation, race or beliefs. “None of these people reported to us that they experienced any serious backlash on social media or emails … which is pretty remarkable,” Wang said. “For teams and companies – because ultimately, it's companies that might be wary of getting involved in anything given the political climate – this seems like a way to give back to the community and help maintain democracy.”

Looking ahead, Wang said they hope to make voting in sports facilities “bigger and better” this year. While many election-related decisions are currently “very much in flux,” Pioli added, “…I would say that this year, just like any other year, [stadium voting] is increasing and the availability and desire to do this has increased. So I think there's a real opportunity for people out there.”

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