Opinion: Businesses can help on election day

July 20, 2020 Atlanta: Early voting for Georgia’s runoff elections began Monday, including at a giant polling place on the Atlanta Hawks’ home court, State Farm Arena (shown here). The runoffs will decide races left unsettled after last month’s primaries, including for the U.S. House of Representatives, Fulton County district attorney, the Georgia General Assembly and superior courts. Three weeks of in-person early voting is available across Georgia, but the biggest voting site in state history is inside State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta. The arena, equipped with 100 voting stations, is designed to ease long lines and provide a central location available to any of Fulton’s 814,000 registered voters. Eighteen other early voting sites are also available in Fulton. The arena transformed into a voting site after some voters waited for hours to cast their ballots in June because of social distancing requirements, precinct closures, poll worker shortages and difficulties operating Georgia’s new voting equipment. Election officials say they’re making changes to avoid similar problems again. They’re improving poll worker training, identifying overcrowded precincts and adding tech support staff at voting locations. After record turnout in the June 9 primary, with nearly 2.4 million voters, fewer people are expected to participate in the runoff. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM



A few years ago, my employer, the Atlanta Hawks, hosted “Swipe Right Night” as part of a promotion to get people to come to the Hawks vs. Memphis Grizzlies game. Fans would come to the game, fire up their Tinder apps, and try to find true love for an evening or a lifetime.

It was such a success that the marketing department tried to bolster it by having camels at the arena for a Wednesday night “Humpday Game/Swipe Right Night 2.0.” Fortunately for me, assistant general counsel for the Hawks and State Farm Arena, Tinder thought it was too risky.

Like so many others, I often get the “what do you do for work” question. When I respond, there are always three follow-up questions, in this order: is your office in the arena? Do you do the Hawks player contracts? What is it that you actually do?

My responses are always, “no,” “sometimes,” and “I solve weird problems.”

Joe Kennedy, Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

One of those weird problems came across my desk a few weeks ago. Unlike the camel-on-the-concourse issue; this would prove to be the most important problem I would ever solve at my job.

Steve Koonin, the CEO of our company, announced that we would be operating a polling location for the 2020 elections at State Farm Arena and our employees were encouraged to participate as poll workers.

The preparations proved to be extensive, so we formed a task force. My job, as a member of this team, was to make sure we didn’t do anything illegal. As a lawyer for a professional sports team and entertainment venue, I had no experience in election law. So I did what any respectable lawyer would do: I Googled it.

I was shocked by what I found. Of the many challenges facing our elections, poll worker shortages may be the biggest obstacle to a fair vote in America. The evidence supporting this statement is substantial.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission did a survey on poll workers and polling places for the 2016 elections. Sixty-five percent of election officials reported that it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain a sufficient number of poll workers. Even more disconcerting, of the areas with the highest number of registered voters, 88% reported that it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain enough poll workers. Furthermore, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration reported that a “signal weakness” of voting in America was the “absence of a dependable, well-trained corps of poll workers.”

Due in large part to the COVID-19 outbreak, we saw the consequences of poll worker shortages in the primary elections. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, polling locations were reduced from 31 to two because only 17 poll workers volunteered. In Lee County, Florida, officials had to cut the number of polling places from 125 to 96 for want of 1,000 poll workers.

And right here, in Atlanta, Georgia, poll worker shortages, and lack of poll worker training led to wait times of more than three hours and abandonment, by some, of the vote.

On top of that, poll workers tend to be in a high-risk group for COVID-19 complications, with 56% of poll workers aged 61 or older. Further straining the system, the President indicated recently that he would attempt to curb mail-in ballots.

David Gerreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, articulated the cliff we are about to go over in a letter to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan: “Recruiting Election Judges is the most difficult task for the Local Boards under normal circumstances. In the midst of the public health crisis, it is turning into an impossible task. The LBEs (Local Boards of Elections) will not be able to make up for the Election Judge shortfall. The only recourse the local Election Boards will be to consolidate polling places in order to manage in-person voting with the available Election Judge resources.”

All of these factors are leading to a potential election fiasco that could make 2000′s hanging chad about as trivial as President Obama’s tan suit “scandal.”

However, there is a solution.

As part of my company’s involvement in the upcoming election, we signed up more than enough of our employees as poll workers to staff early voting for the local runoff elections. We plan to enlist even more for the general election.

Other businesses can do the same.

Businesses of all types can enact policies allowing employees to become poll workers. They can give their employees the option to take paid time off to receive training and to volunteer then vote in early voting and on election day.

As a businessperson and lawyer, I fully grasp the challenges of this idea: potential loss of revenue, employment law issues, and scheduling complications to name a few. But if we do not act now, we risk permanent damage to our democracy; surely this outweighs the temporary setbacks that businesses may face.

It’s a simple solution to a complicated problem. But I’ve seen firsthand that it will work.

Throughout this process and with the recent spotlight on social injustices in mind, I’ve frequently gone back to the night Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Bobby Kennedy gave an impromptu speech on the back of a pickup truck where he made the case for “compassion towards one another and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or black.” The result was a peaceful night in Indianapolis.

But the line that stuck with me occurred in a moment of vulnerability when he simply said, “We can do well in this country.” We could then and we can now.

The American experiment – a country by the people and for the people – has brightened the darkest corners of tyranny and oppression throughout the world for centuries. We’ve now found ourselves at the crossroads of history and a generation.

We have the opportunity to realize that dream, grounded in the ideals of our founding fathers and laced with the practicality of the moment. While our country will never be perfect, a more perfect union is right within our grasp.

We just have to volunteer, then vote.

Joe Kennedy is Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena assistant general counsel for legal and business affairs.