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Sports Arenas Turn Into Voting Sites Across The U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over the summer, basketball players in the NBA decided to stop playing to shine a light on racial inequality and social justice issues. They eventually resumed but with a list of demands, including that NBA arenas be used as polling locations wherever possible. NPR's Miles Parks visited one of those arenas recently and watched as it was transformed into a voting supercenter in a matter of hours.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Throughout his eight-year career as the Washington Wizards starting shooting guard, Bradley Beal has scored more than 11,000 points. He's made two All-Star teams, and he's hit over a thousand three-pointers. But one thing he hasn't done in all that time - vote.

BRADLEY BEAL: I can selfishly say I was that individual four years ago and maybe eight years ago. I was someone who didn't take registration seriously. I was someone who thought that my vote didn't count.

PARKS: The arena Beal plays in, Capital One arena in Washington, will serve as a polling place this election mostly because of players like him and LeBron James speaking out.

BEAL: Had a conversation with my parents, my grandparents, you know, who are still alive and just understanding what they had to go through in order to have their right to vote, in order to have their privilege for their voice to be heard, you know? And so for me, I clearly took that for granted for eight to 10 years. And so I definitely want to nip that in the bud.

PARKS: In all, dozens of NBA arenas and other sports facilities nationwide will be used for voting this fall. And they'll fill a real need for election officials, who've had to consolidate precincts in many cases and search for spaces, especially in densely populated cities, that allow for social distancing.

ALICE MILLER: We are at a place in time where the little - the smaller facilities no longer work.

PARKS: That's Alice Miller. She runs the D.C. Board of Elections. And last week she was watching as dozens of her staff turned the concessions area of D.C.'s basketball and hockey arena into a voting center.

MILLER: I think we're going to have, like, 20 check-in clerks. We normally would have three or four. We're going to have 20 ballot-marking devices, six ballot-on-demand machines which actually print the ballots out. We normally have two.

PARKS: Of course, everything is set up as you'd expect during a pandemic. There's Plexiglas sheets between the check-in kiosks, gallons of hand sanitizer. And staffers are measuring to make sure voting booths are six feet apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE MEASURE RETRACTING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Move it back some.

PARKS: The arena solution also helps with poll worker recruitment, which has been a worry this year. Employees at this and many other arenas were able to volunteer to work as poll workers. Tramaine Frazier has worked at Capital One Arena since 2013.

TRAMAINE FRAZIER: I'm a wardrobe clerk/lost and found.

PARKS: But today she's learning how to use a voter check-in tablet.

FRAZIER: Come here. I think I pushed too many buttons.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're right where you need to be.

FRAZIER: Oh, OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So this is where they start.

FRAZIER: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So when you're getting ready to process, you'll hit manual entry. If they don't have their registration card or their ID...

FRAZIER: OK.

PARKS: One of the toughest aspects of planning an election in the COVID era is the guesswork involved. D.C. mailed every voter a ballot, but officials weren't sure who would use them. I asked the facility operations manager for the D.C. Board of Elections, Arlin Budoo, how many people he thought would vote at the arena. He was watching staffers wipe off voting booths, and he just laughed.

ARLIN BUDOO: We don't have an idea of it (laughter). I mean, we just can't say right now.

PARKS: Even in a nonpandemic year, arenas like this could offer centrally located, massive spaces for voting. There could obviously be scheduling issues with things like concerts and sports. But Budoo says voters may demand it or something like it going forward.

BUDOO: It's hard to predict that part. I would say this. The more you give people, the more they expect. So with us doing this with 2020, they may expect it. But that's above my pay grade.

PARKS: As of Friday morning, more than 2,000 people have voted at the arena, and the average wait time in line was less than five minutes.

Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLEGE'S "REVELATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.