Falcons’ Blank says voting should be ‘easier, not harder.’ Hawks are silent.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank walks on the field of U.S. Bank Stadium before game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank walks on the field of U.S. Bank Stadium before game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

Arthur Blank’s Falcons and Atlanta United and Tony Ressler’s Hawks made efforts to increase voter participation in the last two state elections. Maybe they didn’t know that the politicians they were spending money to help elect would go on to pass a voter suppression law. I don’t see how, considering the years-long effort by national and state Republicans to create barriers to voting.

But let’s say Blank and Ressler didn’t know this would happen. Let’s assume they had no idea that Republicans in the Legislature would accelerate their voter suppression efforts in Georgia after record turnout cost the GOP the White House and the control of the U.S. Senate. Now Blank and Ressler do know.

Now what?

Will Blank and Ressler speak out against politicians who are trying to suppress votes under false pretenses? Will they commit to ending campaign donations to those politicians? Will the franchise owners do so even though it could hurt their efforts to lobby the GOP state legislative majority to support legalized sports gambling?

II asked Hawks for an interview with CEO Steve Koonin, Ressler’s right-hand man in Atlanta. I also asked to speak to Blank via AMB Sports and Entertainment. Koonin and Ressler both declined to be interviewed and the Hawks didn’t want to make a statement.

Blank released the following statement, first to the AJC, Tuesday afternoon:

“Every voice and every vote matters and should be heard through our democratic process in Georgia. The right to vote is simply sacred. We should be working to make voting easier, not harder for every eligible citizen. To that end, AMBSE leadership, along with our nonprofit partners, conveyed that ideal directly to state officials in recent weeks. Our businesses and family foundation will continue to actively support efforts that advance voting access for the citizens of Georgia and across the nation.”

Update: The Hawks released the following statement from Ressler Wednesday morning:

“As the first sports franchise in the U.S. to open its venue as a safe, efficient voting site during the pandemic, we have taken real, visible action to ensure voting is accessible to our community. The right to vote is the most fundamental citizen’s right and we at the Hawks view ourselves as a civic asset – not a partisan organization – and remain committed to endorsing steps that promote equality and encourage participation by all who seek to cast a ballot.”

It’s good that Blank explicitly calls for making it easier to vote and pledges to support those efforts. It would be much better if Blank named the elected officials who are making it harder. I’d also like to know the specifics of what he told state officials, and what they told him. A spokesperson for Blank said he’ll have no further comment on the matter at this time.

It didn’t cost the Hawks and Falcons much to say they were for voting rights last year. Who could be against making it easier to vote? The answer is the same as always: Republican lawmakers (if those votes aren’t for them). Now those politicians have become even more explicit about using government power to damper turnout.

As cover, Republicans are using the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the presidential election that he lost . Georgia Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan called the proposals “solutions in search of a problem.” But fraud isn’t the problem GOP is trying to solve. It’s too many citizens, especially Black citizens, exercising their right to vote. Republicans know that high turnout usually means defeat for their unpopular agenda.

This development puts Blank and Ressler in a politically-fraught position. The Hawks, Falcons, Braves and United are part of the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance. The group’s Political Action Committee (PAC) is lobbying to legalize online and mobile gaming in the state. Blank and Ressler are among franchise owners who want a piece of the lucrative, growing sports gambling market.

According to reports filed with the state, the Alliance spent about $144,000 in the last cycle on state election campaigns and related groups. About three-fourths of those funds went to Republican candidates and political committees. That’s a smart investment in a state legislature dominated by Republicans. But now it means the pro teams are aligned with representatives who voted unanimously to restrict voting rights.

(At least the Braves can’t be accused of hypocrisy on this issue. They weren’t among the handful of teams that joined MLB’s voting rights initiative in September.)

Maybe I’m being too cynical in thinking sports gambling is the reason Blank won’t say more, and the Hawks are saying nothing, about voting rights. Perhaps they just don’t want to seem partisan by picking a side. But that framing implies that this is a normal political dispute about, say, the proper level of taxation. That’s not what’s happening.

This isn’t left vs. right. It’s right vs. wrong. The voter suppression law is anti-democratic, small ‘d.” Either you believe in extending the franchise to all citizens or you don’t. Blank and Ressler can’t credibly straddle that fence. If they really believe what they say about voting rights, they’ll stop supporting politicians who create obstacles for voters.

Georgia’s elections were free and fair, as state GOP officials repeatedly confirmed. Republicans defend their voter suppression efforts by muttering about “integrity” of elections and restoring “confidence” with voters. That lack of confidence is fueled by politicians and partisan media who believe, or pretend to believe, the Big Lie. There is no integrity in using falsehoods to justify their attacks on voting rights.

When announcing the opening of State Farm Arena as a polling location last year, Ressler said the team has a “responsibility to make sure the organization was an important civic asset to the city of Atlanta. Utilizing State Farm Arena and our incredible staff to make the arena an accessible and vital polling site in an important election year is a fulfillment on that promise.”

Spending money to elect politicians who pass laws to make voting less accessible is a betrayal of that promise. The Hawks and other pro sports teams have supported elected representatives who are a hindrance to progress and equal rights. Those politicians passed a law with several provisions that will disproportionately impact Black citizens’ right to vote.

The defenders of the law don’t want to talk about those things. They’d rather focus on the requirement for state identification to cast an absentee ballot. Nothing racist about that! This is the Jim Crow ploy of passing laws that are racially neutral on their face, but racially discriminatory in impact.

A national survey research by the pro-democracy Brennan Center for Justice found that Black people are three times more likely to lack an ID required to vote. About 200,000 of Georgia’s 7.23 million registered voters don’t have a drivers’ license or ID card. Per the 2020 U.S. Census, there are about 8.1 million Georgia residents 18 or older. There likely are hundreds of thousands more potential Georgia voters who don’t have an ID.

Blank says he’s against measures that make it harder to vote. I’m sure Koonin would say the same. It’s unequivocally a good thing that the Hawks and Falcons opened their team venues for polls and supported get out the vote efforts.

But remember that both businessmen received taxpayer funds to finance their stadiums. Blank will end up getting more than $700 million in public subsidies for Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Ressler received $142.5 million in public funds for arena renovations. I believe those taxpayer investments, with no commensurate financial benefit to the public, obligate the team owners to provide the venue for civic activities.

The alliance of the four Atlanta pro sports teams can say they don’t agree with every stance of the politicians whose campaigns they fund. But, again, this isn’t a normal policy dispute. It’s about a fundamental right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The voting rights of Black citizens have been perpetually under attack by since that Amendment was adopted.

Blank, Ressler and Braves owner Liberty Media helped to finance the campaigns of politicians who are leading that effort in Georgia. By doing so, the teams aligned themselves with anti-democratic actions and systemic racism. There’s no way for them to hide from that. If Blank and Ressler believe what they say about voting rights, they’ll take substantive action to undo the damage.

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