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How Many NBA Arenas Actually Became Polling Places?

People cast their vote on the first day of early voting at the Vote Center at Staples Center sports and entertainment arena in Los Angeles, California
David McNew/Getty Images

On Aug. 26, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court. The team was scheduled that day to play Game 5 against the Orlando Magic in the NBA Playoffs—it also was just three days after Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. The Bucks refused to take the court, later saying in a team statement, “We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable.” They were prepared to forfeit the game, but by then all the Magic players said they would sit out, too.

The movement quickly bloomed into a wildcat strike as every single NBA player and every single WNBA player said they would not play, leading both leagues to total shutdowns. Over the next few days multiple MLB and MLS games were canceled when their players refused to play, and tennis star Naomi Osaka sat out her scheduled match in the Western & Southern Open in New York. It was an impressive and moving example of the power of worker solidarity.

It also, if you were an NBA official, was a huge problem. Your entire business model is based on people watching NBA games, in a season that already had games wiped out because of COVID-19. Now, it was suddenly and drastically unclear when the restarted games would happen again. In reaching a deal for players returning to play, owners agreed to several steps. They would start a social justice coalition. They would create advertisements during NBA games to encourage civic engagement. And, they would do this: “In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property, team governors will continue to work with local elections officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID. If a deadline has passed, team governors will work with local elections officials to find another election-related use for the facility, including but not limited to voter registration and ballot receiving boards.”

That leads to a natural follow-up question: Did that actually happen?

There are 29 NBA arenas used by 30 teams (the Lakers and Clippers share their arena in Los Angeles). Defector Media checked in on all 29 arenas to see what happened with them, using local coverage and also making a few phone calls.

In total, 17 current NBA arenas became polling places, plus one G-League facility and one former NBA arena, which, if you include them, brings the total to 19. But not all arenas became polling places in the same way. Of the 19, four were open only for early voting (Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans, and Orlando) and another four were open only on Election Day (Chicago, Cleveland, Indiana, and Utah), while the remaining 11 were open for both.

This means that 10 NBA arenas never became polling places. Some had very good reasons: The Toronto Raptors, after all, play in Canada. Most voting in the Portland Trail Blazers’ state of Oregon is done by mail. In a few cases, local election officials rejected the arenas, saying they didn’t think they were convenient enough for voters or would cost too much money to use. But some arenas were rejected for far less transparent reasons. The sudden rejection of the Miami Heat’s arena in favor of a much smaller museum has devolved into a public records lawsuit. Minneapolis isn’t using its NBA arena, but the city didn’t give any detailed public statement saying why.

The arena belonging to the Bucks—the team whose refusal to play lead to the added push to open up all these facilities—was denied after rounds of political fighting and legal challenges. The Bucks’ arena fell victim to little more than thinly veiled attempts at voter suppression, over who could vote in Wisconsin and when they could cast their ballots.

It’s a reminder that politics, and running elections, is still extremely local stuff. For all the might and power of a global business like the NBA, it still can’t get carte blanche from an elections supervisor in Shelby County, Tennessee, or openly flout the deadlines for when a polling place must be declared in Massachusetts. Ultimately, NBA owners got what they wanted, the games continued and the Lakers were crowned champions. For the players, their efforts at activism and voter engagement are more of a mixed result. While the strike demonstrated the power of worker solidarity, it’s still hard to know if their demands have had any impact on this fall’s election.

But the league did get 19 facilities, which is more than half, opened up for voters to cast ballots in a year already with record-setting voter turnout. So here’s the final breakdown of each individual team, the arena location, and if it became a polling location.

Team: Atlanta Hawks
Arena location: Atlanta, GA
Did it become a polling place? Yes, but only for early voting and not for Election Day.

Team: Boston Celtics
Arena location: Boston, MA
Did it become a polling place? No
Why not? The Bucks walked off the court on Aug. 26. On Aug. 31, the following statement was released: “Unfortunately, TD Garden is not eligible to be a voting site because the city requires approval of voting sites at least 20 days prior to the statewide primaries, which are Sept. 1, and to be open for both the statewide primaries and the Nov. 3 general election so as to avoid voters being confused by a change in voting sites.”

Team: Brooklyn Nets
Arena location: Brooklyn, NY
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day.

Team: Charlotte Hornets
Arena location: Charlotte, NC
Did it become a polling place? Yes, but only for early voting.

Team: Chicago Bulls
Arena location: Chicago, IL
Did it become a polling place? Yes, but only on Election Day. 

Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Arena location: Cleveland, OH
Did it become a polling place? Yes, but only on Election Day.

Team: Dallas Mavericks
Arena location: Dallas, TX
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day.

Team: Denver Nuggets
Arena location: Denver, CO
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day.

Team: Detroit Pistons
Arena location: Detroit, MI
Did it become a polling place? No.
Why not?  The Pistons offered the arena for voting, but election officials said they believed that satellite polling centers were more convenient for voters than the downtown arena, Crains Detroit Business reported. Election officials did take advantage of the team’s practice facility, using it as a receiving center. An official drop box for ballots also was placed in front of the facility.

Team: Golden State Warriors
Arena location: San Francisco, CA
Did it become a polling place? Sort of. The San Francisco arena where the Warriors play was not converted into a polling location. Instead, the team’s arena in Santa Cruz, which hosts the NBA G-League team the Santa Cruz Warriors, and its Oakland facility served as polling and ballot drop-off locations during early voting and on Election Day. The Oakland facility also was used as a poll worker training location. In San Francisco, the outdoor area surrounding the arena became a ballot drop-off location.

Team: Houston Rockets
Arena location: Houston, TX
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day.

Team: Indiana Pacers
Arena location: Indianapolis, IN
Did it become a polling place? Yes, but only on Election Day. 

Teams: Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers
Arena location: Los Angeles, CA
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day

Team: Memphis Grizzlies
Arena location: Memphis, TN
Did it become a polling place? No.
Why not? The Grizzlies play in the arena but don’t own it; the facility belongs to the city of Memphis. The Grizzlies had reached out about the arena being used for voting back in June, but, according to WMC-TV, the proposal was declined by Shelby County Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips. Per WMC-TV, Phillips said the arena wasn’t a good site for logistical reasons, like the long walk from the parking lot to the arena, the cost to the county of staffing the location, as well as the lack of internet: “Even if you could get the internet installed there, it would raise our costs phenomenally or it would make life very difficult for voters.”

A proposal to use the arena for voting also went before the Shelby County Election Commission. The measure failed, WBHQ-TV reported.

Team: Miami Heat
Arena location: Miami, FL 
Did it become a polling place? No
Why not? Miami’s Republican Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who’s also running for Congress, intervened. 

The Heat, going back to June, had already started talking with the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections about turning over the arena to election officials to help, since it was empty due to all NBA games being played in the Orlando bubble. According to the Miami Herald, the Heat and elections officials “were on the brink” of signing paperwork to have the team’s arena open up for early voting. Then came the Aug. 26 wildcat strike by NBA players after Blake was shot by the police, followed by the news, covered by every news outlet in the country, that the NBA wanted to turn its arenas into polling centers. 

According to text messages obtained by the Herald, the next day Gimenez sent a text message to Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Christina White with a link to a story about the arena plan, saying, “Ned [sic] to talk about this.” 

The deal collapsed a few days later. After Gimenez sent the text message to White, per the Herald, White stopped responding to emails from Heat officials asking about the next steps to make the arena deal happen. Instead, the much smaller Frost Science Museum was used. 

“To say we are disappointed is a huge understatement,” the Heat said in an official statement. “The arena is clearly a better site, with more visibility, more space, and more parking.”

Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Arena location: Milwaukee, WI
Did it become a polling place? No
Why not? At first, it looked like the team’s arena was going to be used as a polling place. In August, days after the Bucks refused to take the court, city officials announced that the arena as well as the local baseball park would be early voting locations. But election officials changed their minds after two things happened. One was U.S. District Judge William Conley’s rejection of a request to expand early voting. The second was a notice from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, telling local election clerks that all voting locations had to have been designated by June 12.

“It was a very tough decision, but the last thing I would want is city of Milwaukee voters to use those sites and then later have their ballots thrown out due to our mistake or violation of a very unforgiving state statue,” Claire Woodall-Vogg, Milwaukee Election Commission executive director, told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes responded to the news succinctly: “They hate it when people vote.”

Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Arena location: Minneapolis, MN
Did it become a polling place? No
Why not? The arena is owned by the city of Minneapolis. A city spokesperson told the Star-Tribune that there were no plans to use the facility for voting. No other explanation was given. The city did not answer Defector’s requests for comment.

Team: New Orleans Pelicans
Arena location: New Orleans, LA
Did it become a polling place? Yes, but only for early voting and not on Election Day. Tyler Brey, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, told NOLA.com that the arena wasn’t being used on Election Day because that would mean taking machines away from other locations that they believed were more convenient for voters.

Team: New York Knicks
Arena location: New York, NY
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day.

Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Arena location: Oklahoma City, OK
Did it become a polling place? No.
Why not? Oklahoma City owns the arena. City spokesperson Kristy Yager told Defector Media that the city wasn’t asked about the arena being a polling place. The arena was used for a voter registration drive.

Team: Orlando Magic
Arena location: Orlando, FL
Did it become a polling place? Yes, but only for early voting.

Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Arena location: Philadelphia, PA
Did it become a polling place? No?
Why not? The team offered the arena to election officials, but they were told that the arena wasn’t seen as a great polling location for Election Day. Here’s what Nick Custodio, deputy commissioner under the chairperson of the city commission, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The Eagles and Sixers have reached out, though we have already identified more convenient locations for the voters of those divisions around the Linc and Wells Fargo Center. But it is great to know that they are available in case they are needed.”

The Sixers issued a press release around the same time saying that the arena had been “offered use of the arena to the City of Philadelphia for election activities related to the general election to be held in November of 2020.” A spokesperson for the city commissioners, who manage elections in Philadelphia, told Defector, “To my knowledge, the Wells Fargo Center is not involved at all in election activities next week.”

Team: Phoenix Suns
Arena location: Phoenix, AZ
Did it become a polling place? Sort of.
Why not? The arena the Suns use is still undergoing a renovation project. A team official told the Arizona Republic: “The arena is off limits due to construction and the timing of a certificate of occupancy to allow the public into the arena, which won’t be ready in time to properly plan. Instead, the team’s former arena, the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, became a polling place for early voting and on Election Day.

Team: Portland Trail Blazers
Arena location: Portland, OR
Did it become a polling place? No
Why not? In Oregon, almost the entire state votes by mail.

Team: Sacramento Kings
Arena location: Sacramento, CA
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day.

Team: San Antonio Spurs
Arena location: San Antonio, TX
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day.

Team: Toronto Raptors
Arena location: Toronto, Ontario
Did it become a polling place? No
Why not? In Canada

Team: Utah Jazz
Arena location: Salt Lake City, UT
Did it become a polling place? Yes, but only on Election Day. 

Team: Washington Wizards
Arena location: Washington D.C.
Did it become a polling place? Yes, for early voting and on Election Day.