Professional sports teams should play a role on Election Day, but their stadiums should stay out of it
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The Presidential Election on Nov. 3 will occur during a global outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. Election officials are scrambling to prepare an election that is safe for voters and poll workers in addition to being effective, equitable and accessible. One of the greatest challenges currently facing officials is that many polling locations used for elections are in cramped building spaces that are not equipped for social distancing, possibly leading to a reduced number of voting booths and long voter waiting times.

Wanting to help play a role on Election Day, many professional sports teams have offered the use of their spacious arenas, stadiums and ballparks to use as polling centers on Nov. 3. These stadiums have excellent airflow and ample room for social distancing. At face value, it seems like a good idea since these stadiums can expand the resources available for voters.

While professional sports teams can use their significant resources to make a difference, there is a downside to this specific option.

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The additional voting resources at stadiums are not in the places where they are needed the most so they may not make a difference. In addition, professional sports stadiums add a layer of complexity to the voting process since all voters have a choice between their standard polling location and the stadium. This could create a mismatch between where voters choose to vote and where resources are allocated.

Cities large enough for professional sports teams have hundreds of polling locations. Los Angeles County, for example, has 978 polling locations, and the city of Milwaukee has 182. Many voters would not have to wait to vote at their standard polling locations near their places of residence. If a small percentage of voters across hundreds of polling locations choose to vote at the sports stadium, they could overwhelm the stadium. The sports stadiums cannot alleviate these long voter wait times if the stadium is congested with voters from precincts with short wait times. As a result, some voters may face long wait times at both their standard polling location and the sports stadium.

Using sports stadiums as supplementary polling locations for in-person voting on Election Day carries a risk. Alternative polling locations introduce complexity and do not necessarily alleviate long voting queues at polling stations in the community, potentially leading to longer wait times for many voters. This drawback can be avoided by instead allocating the extra resources to the standard polling locations where these resources are most needed, instead of using these resources at the stadium and hoping for the best.

Here are what professional sports teams and leagues should do instead.

  1. Having enough poll workers is the most important factor for ensuring short voter wait times, yet many polling locations face poll worker shortages. Sports teams and leagues should use their ample resources to ensure that additional poll workers are available at the standard polling locations by encouraging citizens to volunteer as poll workers or by hiring poll workers. This ensures that there are adequate resources where they are most needed.
  2. Sports stadiums can be used as sites for in-person early voting, absentee ballot drop boxes and voter registration.
  3. Sports leagues can promote voting, distribute information regarding how to register to vote and educate voters on properly completing and submitting a mail-in absentee ballot.

There is a role for professional sports in upcoming elections. While providing additional space on Election Day isn’t the answer, professional sports teams and leagues should use their clout and resources to instead increase poll workers, early voting and voting education, having the type of impact they seek on voting participation rates and voter waiting times.

Dr. Laura A. Albert is a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Engineering. Her research applies optimization and analytical methods to public sector applications. She is a member and former Board member of INFORMS, the largest trade association of Operations Research and Analytics professionals.