Hawks’ State Farm Arena to become Georgia’s largest voting precinct

State Farm Arena in Atlanta. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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State Farm Arena in Atlanta. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

As Hawks CEO Steve Koonin watched protests unfold in Atlanta, sparked by George Floyd’s death and ongoing issues of police brutality and the fight for racial justice, he stopped to think about what comes next.

“It just struck me that if nothing came out of this protest to create change, then we would have failed,” Koonin said.

That thought quickly morphed into an idea, which builds on the Hawks' recent focus on voting rights after a company-wide discussion on race in early June — what if State Farm Arena could be transformed into a polling place? It didn't take long for the idea to take shape, with Koonin pitching the idea to Fulton County commission chairman Robb Pitts on June 18. On Monday, the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections approved State Farm Arena for the coming 2020 elections, beginning with early voting July 20 for Georgia's general primary runoff Aug. 11.

The Hawks’ arena is set to become Georgia’s largest-ever voting precinct.

» MORE: Fulton County adds 11 voting sites

After Koonin told Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and owner Tony Ressler about the idea, they quickly jumped on board.

“We believe this is good for Atlanta, good for Fulton County, good for Georgia, really, good for the country,” Ressler said. “Having everyone in our organization participating is something we are all so very proud of.”

Pierce sits on the National Basketball Coaches Association's committee on racial injustice and reform, and has been a vocal leader for the league in recent weeks. He spoke out after Floyd's death, as well as the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, and in early June gave a speech at an NAACP march in downtown Atlanta, mentioning the Hawks' hope to turn State Farm Arena into a voting precinct.

As Pierce continued to publicize that goal and discuss it more, he and the Hawks realized just how many people supported the idea. Pierce said he plans to discuss during a meeting of all 30 NBA head coaches Monday night how the Hawks partnered with Fulton County to make this happen, with the hopes that more teams and organizations follow suit.

“This is great information and great news to deliver,” Pierce said. “And we’re competitors. This will be a challenge to 29 other coaches in our league if they can get this done. … I’m encouraged by us being the model for voting, us being the leader and making this a reality and then us leading the charge and getting the rest of our country to encourage voting.”

During early voting, Fulton County residents can vote at any polling site within their county, so casting a ballot at State Farm Arena will be an option for many.

The Hawks have several resources they think will help facilitate a smooth voting process, including hundreds of part- and full-time employees at State Farm Arena who will be trained in becoming poll workers. The Hawks will pay those workers, though it is not mandatory and anyone can opt out. They also will have their full IT staff on hand every day for the voting process.

As the country continues to deal with the coronavirus, the Hawks believe the arena’s size (680,000 square feet) will help keep people safe as they vote. All staff will wear masks, with voters strongly encouraged to wear masks as well, hand-sanitizer stations are positioned throughout the building and all paths to vote will have people positioned six feet apart, with voting machines socially distanced as well. In addition, more than 1,500 parking spots surrounding the arena will be free for vehicles with a voter.

This was important for the Hawks to do, per Ressler, since the right to vote is important for the Atlanta community and fans of the organization.

“We think we have the best-run arena in the country,” Ressler said. “We want to be part of running the most efficient, best polling location in the country. We’re going to do whatever we can to help our friends in Fulton County make this special. … Our employees are all in. Our leadership is all in. So this is something we do take as a challenge, and hopefully we can help, and it is very important to us, because we believe it’s very important to the community that we reside in and that our fans live in.”

Because of delays caused by the coronavirus, the 2020-21 NBA season will not start until December as opposed to October, a factor that made this idea possible.

Hawks players also will be involved, using social media to encourage voter turnout.

This is one way the Hawks can take action and act as a community resource, Koonin said.

“If we want change, it starts at the polls,” Koonin said. “So we’re going to help effect change and grow voting in Fulton County, and create safety in a very difficult time. And we’re thrilled to be doing it.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger praised the Hawks’ efforts to become an early voting location: “The partnership between Fulton County and the Atlanta Hawks is a great example of how the public sector and the private sector can work together to address the issues we saw on June 9. Looking forward, we are hoping to build more of these partnerships with the private sector and civic groups to support voter access during this unprecedented pandemic. Thank you to the Atlanta Hawks and to State Farm Arena, in addition to Fulton County’s dedicated election officials, for making this possible.”