The return of sporting events is up in the air, but that doesn’t mean people can’t use sporting arenas for other activities. And the most important activity right now? Voting. The Fulton County Registration and Elections Board recently approved a plan put forth by the Atlanta Haws to transform State Farm Arena into a massive polling station for Georgia’s primary election on Aug. 11 and early voting for general election on No. 3.
The idea to transform the stadium came the weekend after the killing of George Floyd. Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, CEO Steve Koonin, and majority owner Anthony Ressler came up with the plan.
“We were casually brainstorming since our whole world turned about what we can do internally as an organization,” Pierce said. “We were trying to figure out how we can take care of home first, and [Koonin] pitched the idea.”
“It took me about a nanosecond to understand what a big deal that would be for us here in Fulton County running this upcoming election, given the challenges that we had,” said Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County board of commissioners.
Watching Georgia voters wait hours during the June 9th primary election led the Hawks to believe their plan could work. In Atlanta, polling sites—particularly in predominantly Black communities—experienced many issues that led to delays. And when you’re waiting for vote during a pandemic, delays are not just annoying—they’re a potential health problem.
“When we saw what we saw on June 9, it was extremely clear that we have a real issue in the state of Georgia and especially here in Atlanta,” Pierce said. “And we felt we had an opportunity to do something special. It was encouraging that we were able to think outside of the box and speak this idea into existence.”
The State Farm Arena has an interior of 680,000 square feet, including a practice floor and dozens of suites that could be used for voting purposes. Voting machines will be set at least six feet apart and voters will follow social distancing practices. Many ancillary functions of election day such as tabulating absentee ballots, can be performed on site.
“Making State Farm Arena the safest, most efficient and largest polling location in Georgia—and maybe the country—we thought was a really cool idea that helps Atlanta be a model for a great voting experience rather than what hasn’t, shall we say, been a model recently,” Ressler said.
The Hawks have volunteered to pick up the expenses for the voting facility, including compensation for 300 full-time State Farm Arena employees and several hundred who work part-time.