Building The Vote: The Polling Place Pivot

State Farm Arena
– State Farm Arena
VOTE HERE: State Farm Arena is among many big league facilities that have been converted to polling sites for the 2020 presidential election.

In a time when venue operations are limited, many have pivoted into a limitless realm: civic duty. 

Field hospitals, food distribution hubs, testing sites and physically distanced shelters for vulnerable populations are just some of the invaluable community services these buildings are providing. Now, in this politically charged election year, add polling places, voter registration sites, ballot processing centers and other electoral functions to the list of civic services now being offered at arenas, stadiums and convention centers across the country.
 “The thing to keep in mind is the vast majority of IAVM members are publicly owned, and many are publicly operated,” says Brad Mayne, president and CEO of the International Association of Venue Managers. “The majority [received] taxpayer dollars and they ought to be put to use for community need. Polling places are certainly a community need.” 
With space available, and venue executives, staff, security personnel, cleaning companies and other vendors already having spent months devising protocols to reopen facilities as safely as possible, these buildings are ideal locations for electoral functions, Mayne says. 
“Our professionals that run these venues are uniquely qualified to put something like this together from logistics to safety and security to comfort,” he said, adding that venues also have either ample parking or mass transit accessibility or both. “It just goes back to prove that people who run venues are leaders and want to take care of their community and they will step up when they can and do so often.” And the effort isn’t limited to sports venues. 
Concert promoter giant Live Nation announced in September it was working with local governments to explore using more than 100 music venues as polling places, with the Wiltern and Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, Emo’s in Austin, Texas, and the Buckhead Theatre in Atlanta confirmed as voting locations. One of the first venues to get the basketball rolling was State Farm Arena, home to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, which teamed with Georgia’s Fulton County to become one of 20 early voting sites for the state’s general primary runoff election from July 20-August 7. 
Ballot processing was also conducted there along with other election support functions. On Oct. 13, the arena again opened for early voting in the presidential election, with the number of available voting machines increased from 100 to 300 and the facility staff doubling to about 300.  

Election Section
– Election Section
ELECTION SECTION: Richard Barron, Fulton County director of registration and elections; Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena CEO Steve Koonin; and Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts.
Steve Koonin, CEO of State Farm Arena and the Hawks, helped launch what has grown into a nationwide trend with venues from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. and dozens more in between rising to the occasion. “We believe our role in this community is to bring people together and be a community asset,” Koonin said. “In June I watched the protests surrounding the George Floyd death literally in the shadow of our building. It was a good to see people coming out and addressing their dissatisfaction. … Something needed to change.” Koonin discussed the idea of becoming a polling place with Tony Ressler, the Hawks’ majority owner. 
“He liked the idea. We approached the Fulton County Commission, which is led by Chairman Robb Pitts, and pitched the idea and within five minutes of them touring our building, he said, ‘We’ve got a deal. Let’s do this.’” Hawks players created public service announcements — as have other pro athletes — urging people to vote. While some of the Hawks’ players aren’t registered to vote in Atlanta, others will be voting at State Farm or promoting coming to the arena to cast ballots before Election Day, when voters are required to vote in their precincts. 
The arena will again be used for ballot processing on Election Day. Koonin said the arena’s experience with the runoff election was positive. 
“We hosted and served thousands of people. We got great feedback,” he said. “For us it was akin to the preseason where you learn about your team and what you can do better and we learned very good lessons on efficiency that allowed us to make small but meaningful changes for the general election.” 
He called the changes “technical adjustments to make the process more efficient and fluid… time savers for voters.” Koonin’s advice for building operators: “Get your equipment in early and get it tested and understand this is a civic obligation and not an entertainment experience. What I mean by that is, efficient, effective and safe voting,” he said. “That’s what the call is for and that’s what we plan to do.”
Levi’s Stadium and the San Francisco 49ers are participating in the NFL Votes initiative and serving as a voting center where county residents can register, drop off ballots or cast ballots early and on Election Day. The team partnered with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters and the More Than a Vote coalition of black athletes and artists on the effort, which began on Oct. 1. 
“It’s so easy,” said 49ers Chief Administrative Officer Hannah Gordon, who explained that it’s county election officials who do the heavy lifting. “This is why I would encourage every venue in the country. It’s incredibly easy and there are many partners nationwide to help. It’s another opportunity to engage the community and for them to not only to see the stadium but to know we care about them, that their voice is heard and they have access to voting.” 
The 49ers, as a number of other organizations have done, made Nov. 3 a company holiday giving employees the opportunity to vote and volunteer as poll workers. At a news conference at Levi’s Stadium announcing the 49ers’ plans, team President Al Guido spoke on the importance of getting out the vote.
 “There were 100 million people-plus that were registered to vote in 2016 that did not,” he said. “I hope this facility and this opportunity and the ability to do so in a safe environment allows people to come out and feel more comfortable to do so in person. There’s no better place to do it. We all know it’s a tough time with the pandemic. We’ll obviously follow all the county protocols, but we’re lucky to have … 2 million square feet of opportunity (for people to spread) out and place your vote.”
After the Hawks announced their plans, they received inquiries from around the league “and we’ve been able to share our plans and schematics,” Koonin said. “Anybody who needs help, we are there, eager to help,” he said. Dave Brown, chief operating officer and general manager at American Airlines Center in Dallas, admits to adopting the polling place idea from State Farm Arena. The arena, home to the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, was originally to be used for casting ballots on Election Day but its role was expanded to accommodate early voting which began on Oct. 13. 
“We reached out to Dallas County and they were receptive,” Brown said. “The Dallas Mavericks and Mark Cuban got behind it. … With the support of the Mavericks financially, we were able to open up to early voting. We’re doing about 3,000 voters per day.” Brown called it “as gratifying an activity as we’ve ever hosted.” 
“It’s like we were made for this,” he said. “It’s going so smoothly; the parking, the access, the queuing, the social distancing. The building just sets up perfect to accommodate the early voting and the election day voting and the way we need to operate right now.” The use of venues for electoral functions has almost uniformly been presented as a non-partisan, get out the vote effort, as opposed to one aimed at supporting or opposing any particular candidate. “We just want you to vote,” said Koonin. “American Idol historically has garnered more voters than presidential elections and that’s got to be corrected. It’s about voting. Who you vote for is up to you. It’s a democratic process, but we need to enable and help people vote, especially in this COVID climate. Nobody wants to spend a day in line and hopefully large venues across America that venue managers and arena managers are opening will be part of the solution.” 
The San Diego Convention Center is another facility that will serve as a polling place after hosting since April some of the area’s homeless population as a physically distanced shelter location. “We’ve proven we can operate a shelter, we believe that we’ll be able to serve the community as a polling site too,” said Rip Rippetoe, president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation. 
“We were early adopters with all of the information in terms of cleaning and infection control. Our part’s relatively straightforward. We’ll apply those same techniques we’ve already learned and use those. For us it’s not nearly as difficult as what it would be for the county. They’ve got to be able to tell people where the new polling site is, directions, work out the parking with the Port of San Diego and the parking structure next to us. For some venues, however, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Fiserv Forum, home to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, and Miller Park, home of MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers, were withdrawn as early voting locations because of a ruling that a deadline for registering them as sites wasn’t observed, creating the possibility that ballots cast at those locations could be invalidated.
Koonin said State Farm Arena and the Hawks have planned for any eventuality, including potential disruption of balloting political partisans. “We are planning for any and all scenarios,” he said. “We’re very fortunate our head of security (George Turner) is the former chief of police in Atlanta and using our network and the network in Atlanta of law enforcement, we’ve done tabletop exercises; we’ve done a tremendous amount of planning.” The hosting of electoral functions is not a money maker for venues, so Mayne says he isn’t sure this will become a permanent role once the pandemic eases and venues get back to their primary missions, but he and Koonin remarked that at least in some cases venues as polling places could be more common than in the past. “I think it’s a great idea,” Koonin said. “It’s obviously a very complex and unique time. If we were in season, this idea probably would never have happened or even dawned on anyone. So it’s the perfect storm of opportunity.”