Philadelphia won’t take up offers from its professional sports teams to use their venues as polling places for the November election. But the city has been in talks with owners of the Wells Fargo Center, home of the Flyers and 76ers, for the last two months to use the arena as a mail ballot drop-off site or as an election office for in-person early voting.
Last week, the Eagles also approached the city about using Lincoln Financial Field for this purpose, according to Al Schmidt, one of the three city commissioners who run elections. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie had offered the Linc as a polling place previously.
On Tuesday, Comcast Spectacor, owner and operator of the Wells Fargo Center, offered the use of the arena as a voting location after the 76ers ownership, Harris Blitzer, approached the city with the idea. NBA players decided not to play in playoff games last week in order to draw attention to racial injustice, and secured an agreement with NBA owners that they would look to make the teams’ home arenas into polling places.
“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,” said Nick Custodio, deputy commissioner under Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, who run elections. “But it is great to know that they are available in case they are needed.”
The problem, Schmidt said, is that the city’s professional sports complex in South Philadelphia is poorly located for serving as a neighborhood polling place.
“It was never really about polling places, because it would never have been a polling place. Not the Linc, not the Wells Fargo Center,” Schmidt said. “It has to be tied to a specific [voting precinct], and that wouldn’t be convenient for anyone in the area.”
Instead, he said, the two sites make more sense as a place for voters to drop off their mail ballots or to vote in-person before Election Day because they are accessible from different points across the city, with lots of parking and a subway station. And both sites — one indoors, one out — have the space to allow for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
“These are locations that are designed to be reached by large numbers of people,” he said.
Schmidt said his office was first approached by More Than A Vote, LeBron James’ voting advocacy group, in June, and the group connected him with the Sixers.
Unlike traditional early voting, in which people use voting machines the same way they would at polling places on Election Day, Pennsylvania’s method uses mail ballots. Under a new Pennsylvania law enacted last year, any voter is allowed to vote by mail. And in addition to requesting a ballot online or through a form in the mail, voters in any county can go to their county election office and request a mail ballot that is printed and given to them there. They can then fill out the ballot and return it immediately.
While the law makes this option available at all county election offices, it may not be feasible for one office to handle a large number of voters, especially in more populous cities and suburbs. So the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has encouraged counties to set up the satellite offices, including in areas that historically see low turnout or long lines.
NBA players weigh in
Last Wednesday, NBA teams, starting with the Milwaukee Bucks, decided not to play their playoff games in protest against racial injustice and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Some WNBA, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and NHL teams later did the same. Several NFL teams, whose season begins next week, also decided not to practice in solidarity.
Before resuming play, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association agreed to establish a social justice coalition with plans to convert team arenas or practice facilities into voting locations for the general election.
“In the face of the unique circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, both our organization and the 76ers are pleased to be able to support the City of Philadelphia in its efforts to ensure full, fair, safe and secure voter participation in this fall’s election,” Valerie Camillo, president of business operations of the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center, said in a statement. “We applaud the NBA and the 76ers for their advocacy around this issue and are pleased to be able to make our facility available consistent with the City’s needs.”
Chris Heck, president of the Sixers, added in a statement: “We thank our great partner, Comcast Spectacor, and the Philadelphia Flyers for their efforts in ensuring that the Wells Fargo Center is available to serve as a place where the Philadelphia community can safely exercise their right to vote. The 76ers will continue to advocate for increased access to voting and use our platform to do good in our communities.”