LeBron James’ group touts sports venues as mega-voting sites


ATLANTA (AP) – If the basketball icon LeBron James gets what he wants, NBA arenas and other sports venues across the country will be mega polling places for the November general election.

James and his voting rights group, formed this spring with other black athletes and artists, are joining other professional basketball leaders and Michigan's top electoral authority to push for mega voting sites to accommodate voting in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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More than a vote, James's organization dedicated to maximizing black participation in November shared its plans with the Associated Press on Wednesday after the Detroit Pistons became the second NBA franchise to announce plans to use its arena to vote later this year. In Georgia, Fulton County election officials this week approved the Atlanta Hawks' proposal to use the State Farm Arena as a polling place. The plans call for the arena to serve all voters in Fulton County during early voting and on election day, November 3.

The idea, which comes after Kentucky used large facilities in the June 23 primary, is to use large spaces that allow for personal voting, while still imposing social detachment guidelines. It also emphasizes attention to the mechanics of voting in the midst of the pandemic, with the intensity already reflected in President Donald Trump and challenger Democrat Joe Biden, warning that state and local officials have the power to "corrupt" the election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called her "partnership" with the Pistons "a plan for other teams and leagues that seek to advance our common goal of protecting access to voting for all".

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Lloyd Pierce, coach of the Atlanta Hawks, said the deal in his city guarantees "high participation" in a safe environment. Benson, Pierce and David Fizdale, a former New York Knicks coach, will advise NBA franchises and arena management entities across the country on how to replicate existing deals.

The Milwaukee Bucks also confirmed that it is willing to use its local arena as a polling place in the most populous city on Wisconsin's main battlefield.

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The coordinated impulse is a turning point, in a way, in the often partisan dispute over voting procedures.

Some Democrats criticized Kentucky election officials for personally limiting voting in the June primaries in the two most populous counties in the state to the Louisville Exhibition Center and the University of Kentucky football stadium in Lexington. Voting rights advocates argued in a federal court that the plan, part of slamming voting sites across the state amid concerns about coronavirus, would harm minority voters.

A federal judge rejected his claims and the vote continued without the confusion that some lawyers had predicted.

Now Benson, a Democrat, is adopting the arena model not as an example of potential repression against voters, but as a way to fight it. "One of our biggest challenges to protecting voters' access to democracy in November is to identify accessible places where citizens can vote safely in person," she said.

In the midst of COVID, this could overcome the potential logistical difficulties of major sites. The queues at these locations can still be long – as in normal polling places – as seen in Lexington at some points on the main day. Voters may also experience traffic jams or hiccups due to the number of people involved. General elections also have considerably more participation than primary elections.

However, there is a growing bipartisan drive for voting in large spaces. NFL executive Scott Pioli last week presented the National Association of Secretaries of State with a plan for the widespread use of professional and university sports facilities.

James's group is officially non-partisan. But the NBA star was open about his emphasis on the black community, where Trump faces intense opposition for his white identity policy. James did not support Biden, but supported Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, the owners of the Bucks, the Lasry family, are major donors to the Democratic Party. Bucks executive Alex Lasry helped lead the effort that brought the Democratic National Convention to the city.

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