Hawks’ State Farm Arena ready for Fulton voters after rough election
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October 12, 2020 Atlanta: Big Marquee billboard fanfare greeted voters on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta, the first day of three weeks of early voting that ended Friday, Oct. 30. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
For the first time in Georgia, voting will take place just past the Bavarian soft pretzels and the Jack Daniel’s bar.
The Atlanta Hawks and Fulton County government are opening a massive early voting site inside State Farm Arena on Monday, and they gave local journalists a tour Friday as crews put on the finishing touches. Voters will be able to enter through Gate 2 or the newly re-opened MARTA station to cast ballots, with social distancing, among the concession stands or on the stadium floor.
Fulton will have 18 other early voting locations, but the arena will be the largest voting precinct in state history — following one of the largest elections debacles in state history.
More than 93,000 absentee ballots were successfully cast in Fulton during the June 9 election cycle, but some voters waited upwards of seven or eight hours in line and many didn’t get their absentee ballots in time. There were many failures: a flawed absentee ballot system that pushed more voters to the polls amid a pandemic, a slew of last-minute personnel and precinct changes due to COVID-19 and under-trained staff using brand-new equipment for the first time.
Since then, officials have been convening task forces, creating reports and launching investigations to improve for the August runoff and November presidential elections. Highlighting just how fluid the elections process is these days, Fulton for a day and a half this week stopped taking emailed absentee-by-mail ballot applications, a process that gummed up the elections system in June.
Fulton election officials only reversed course after the secretary of state’s office told them it was illegal not to accept emailed applications, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The secretary of state’s office has said nearly three-quarters of all problems during the primary were seen in Fulton.
Democrat-led Fulton, with its history of elections drama, has been the target of Republican state officials.
“I think all of them, the Secretary of State and Deputy Secretary of State, should just do their job,” said Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts wrote earlier this week. “ ... So to continue to focus and dwell on the past is unnecessary and counterproductive!”
Pitts said Friday that when Hawks CEO Steve Koonin called him with the idea of using the arena as a polling place, “It took me about a nanosecond to understand.” He said the deal was official barely 48 hours later.
Digital signs built to advertise beer or promote bobbleheads now explain the proper forms of ID to vote.
Koonin said his organization incurred a “significant cost” and offered up 200 staff members to run the arena’s elections operation. There will be 100 ballot-marking devices at State Farm, said Fulton elections head Richard Barron, which is at least five times as many devices as any other precinct.
With their building empty because of suspended NBA games and no concerts coming to town, Koonin said he realized they could put all their infrastructure toward helping a crucial part of civic life.
“Voting gives you the right to complain,” he said.
Koonin said he expects no problems during the August runoff because turnout will likely be lower. But the number of devices are expected to triple for November with what could be the largest turnout ever in Fulton County, home to a tenth of the state’s population.
“We see the runoff as our pre-season,” Koonin said.
Ben Brasch is the reporter tasked with keeping Fulton County government accountable. The Florida native moved to Atlanta for a job with The AJC. If there's something important to you going on in Fulton, he wants to know about it. Help him better metro Atlanta by dropping a line, anonymously or otherwise.