Hawks, State Farm Arena gearing up for general election

Fulton County department of registration and elections employees work on securing each voting machine at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Wednesday, October 7, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

For the Hawks and State Farm Arena, Georgia’s primary runoff election in late July and early August was something of a trial run, as turnout was moderate.

Now, the state’s largest-ever voting precinct is expanding its early-voting operations for the coming general election, with early voting beginning Oct. 12, the venue staying open for seven days a week, and ending Oct. 30. Voting machines arrived onsite Wednesday.

“We’re treating this like we would a game, in the sense that we have greeters, we have customer-service people, we have more than just a short staff of poll workers,” Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said. “We have the whole infrastructure, including security, that will be part of the process.”

Informative signs are displayed around State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Wednesday, October 7, 2020. State Farm Arena will be open and equipped for Fulton County early voting this presidential election. The arena will not be open for Election Day voting, Tuesday, Nov. 3. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Hawks are ready for an influx of voters, per Koonin, and are hoping their 700,000 square-foot arena will help provide a quick and safe option for those registered in Fulton County to vote in person.

“If we’re as successful as I hope we are and think we are, we might have to rethink, how can we continue this,” Koonin said. “I love the fact that we’re located in the central heart of the city. I love the fact that we’re on rapid transit. I love the fact that there’s no fee to park. We’re trying to knock down all barriers to vote because voting is the one thing that we as Americans have the right to elect our leadership, and we want to make that simple rather than challenging.”

ExploreEarly voting in Georgia begins Oct. 12, ends Oct. 30
ExploreAJC Voter Guide for the Georgia Election

The amount of voting machines onsite has been tripled from 100 to 300, and the amount of staff has been doubled to approximately 300. More than 200 Hawks and State Farm Arena full-time employees have been deputized by Fulton County to serve as election workers, with 70 poll clerks plus seven poll managers on site per day. Overall, factoring in support roles and part-time Hawks/State Farm Arena staff, approximately 300 team members are participating overall (they have been excused from day-to-day operations to help out with the election. Full-time employees will receive excused time off to vote themselves, and part-time employees will receive paid time off to vote).

A system specialist for the Fulton County department of registration and elections [name withheld] inspects each voting machine on the floor at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Wednesday, October 7, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Hawks also are providing meals for poll workers while they’re on-site, Koonin said.

The arena will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 12-24, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 18 and Oct. 25 and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 26-30 (the venue is only for early voting and will not be open on Election Day itself). Having State Farm Arena as an early voting location helps encourage those in Fulton County to vote before Election Day, per Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts. On Election Day, voters are required to vote at their assigned precinct, but for early voting, they can vote at any early voting location in the county.

“The partnership between Fulton County and the Atlanta Hawks is vital in encouraging our voters to get to the polls early,” Pitts said. “When the Hawks initially approached the county with the idea of becoming partners, it demonstrated the lengths this organization was willing to go in order to help us make the voting experience a positive one for our residents – something that we at the county are extremely grateful for.”

The Hawks Foundation will provide complimentary parking for people voting at State Farm Arena, with more than 1,500 parking spots available at the Centennial Sapphire Deck and the Diamond Deck, with ADA/mobility impaired parking available on State Farm Drive and bus drop-off/pickup available on Andrew Young International Boulevard. The arena also is reachable by MARTA.

Similar to Christmas shopping, the Hawks expect heavy traffic the first few days and even more on the last few days, per Koonin. They’re projecting more than 50,000 voters over the 19 days, though there’s no way to pinpoint exactly how many they’ll receive (Fulton County had nearly 800,000 registered voters as of Sept. 1).

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, all employees will wear masks, and some will wear both masks and face shields (masks will be handed out to anyone who does not have one). Social distancing has been marked all over the arena’s floors, and voting machines have been strategically placed throughout the building so as to avoid crowds, with many on the court itself and some throughout the concourses.

A sticker at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Wednesday, October 7, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Koonin thinks the venue’s multiple entrances and exits will help people stay spaced out while going through the voting process.

“We’re using the schematic of, it’s almost like a grocery store,” Koonin said. “Why do they put milk in the back? To drive people there. We’re putting voting machines right near entrances so people can come, sign in and vote and leave right near the exits and entrances, but all over the building.”

For the runoff elections, voters at many sites throughout the county reported long lines, long wait times and technical issues, but the Hawks think their building being originally designed to handle lots of people will help combat that. They will also have Hawks IT staff on hand, if there is a technical issue. Also, absentee ballots for Fulton County will be counted at State Farm Arena.

“Super-long lines are created by a couple of reasons,” Koonin said. “One, there’s a technical issue, or two, there’s just more people than there is space. So, we think we have the space problem solved, and we think by having 300 machines, if you think about that, if it’s a five-minute voting process, with 300 machines, we can power through literally hundreds of people an hour and thousands of people a day. Our building, I think the inside, this might have gotten a little lost, all of these arenas and stadiums that are participating, we’re built for giant crowds. A lot of the prior voting sites were not.”

Technical set-up began Wednesday at State Farm Arena as employees of the Fulton County department of registrations and elections worked on securing the electronic voter machines that will be used for early voting at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Wednesday, October 7, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

In turning State Farm Arena into a polling place in June, which Koonin thought of first, with Ressler and Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce immediately jumping on board, the Hawks started a trend that many other sports teams have followed.

It is also one of many steps they’ve taken to make voting more accessible, with the Hawks creating a campaign for people to check their voter registration status and participating in a voter registration competition with the Golden State Warriors.

“We are proud that the Atlanta Hawks, State Farm Arena and Fulton County were first movers in the effort to utilize our state-of-the-art arena for voting in this important election year," Hawks and State Farm Arena principal owner Tony Ressler said. “Our goal has been and continues to be to provide a safe, secure, socially-distanced voting process that allows for as many registered voters in Fulton County as possible to exercise their right to vote.”

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