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Arenas, stadiums find new life as polling places for upcoming election

ATLANTA — With long waits making headlines during early voting across the country, professional sports venues have emerged as bright spots, repurposing huge spaces mostly devoid of fans into efficient and relatively safe polling places.

Featuring rows and rows of voting machines, ample space for social distancing and staff accustomed to large crowds, these mega voting sites are proving attractive to voters looking for the best way to cast their ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“This was an amazing, fantastic experience,” Jen Cox said after voting at State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks. Other voters leaving the arena and posting on social media shared that sentiment.

The Hawks were the first NBA team to commit their arena for early voting. They contacted Fulton County officials in June after long lines plagued the state’s primary election and protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis roiled the streets around the arena.

“In my mind, protests are great, but protests leading to action, leading to solutions and change is better,” Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said.

Since then, 20 more NBA teams signed on to host voting or other election-related activities — including voter registration and poll worker training — in their arenas or practice facilities. Some of those commitments came after NBA players protesting racial injustice and police brutality halted the playoffs for three days in August, and the league agreed to a plan that includes encouraging voting this fall.

In a normal year, the NBA’s regular season would be starting right about now. But the coronavirus outbreak that has altered voting procedures during the presidential election also has delayed the season and left arenas sitting empty. Opening them to voters seemed a natural fit.

“We’re going to have thousands every day between now and Election Day voting in NBA arenas,” said Kathy Behrens, the league’s social responsibility and player programs president.

The NFL, NHL and MLB also are getting involved. Half the NFL’s 32 teams are making their facilities available following offseason conversations commissioner Roger Goodell had with players about ways to leverage the league’s power against social injustice.

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