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NBA arena workers take on polling place duties for Election Day

Tim Perry

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of Americans in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

When the NBA suddenly announced the suspension of its 2019-2020 season in mid-March, after Utah Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell confirmed that they had both tested positive for COVID-19, there were still five weeks remaining to play out the 82-game schedule — as well as the playoffs that were to begin April 18. Beyond upsetting millions of basketball fans, it seemed to pose a threat to the economic prospects of team and stadium employees around the U.S. In Atlanta, though, some of these staffers are still at work — and helping to solve a pressing Election Day problem. 

"Thinking back on when all this transpired nobody knew much of anything. There were a lot of questions." Nick Darby, Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena guest engagement manager, told CBS News. "With the nature of our business and especially, you know, our department being customer service-focused, I think that everyone has kind of wondered what the impact would be to, not only our department, but the organization as a whole."

Darby, a full-time employee who has worked for the organization for three years, said his role is still intact and he's able to continue his guest engagement duties remotely. In addition to his job at the State Farm Arena, Darby has also picked up another unexpected responsibility: poll worker.

At the end of June, after a Georgia primary marred by controversy, Fulton County, Georgia's largest voting county and the Atlanta Hawks announced an unusual partnership that would transform Atlanta's State Farm Arena into Georgia's largest ever voting precinct. The arena, which opened for early voting on July 20 for Georgia's general primary runoff on August 11, will also open its doors in October when early voting begins for the general election. This will allow thousands of voters to cast their ballots for the upcoming election while maintaining CDC-recommended social distancing guidelines.

"Owning an NBA franchise in Atlanta is a real privilege and we always felt we were a community and civic asset. We took that both as an opportunity and a big responsibility, making State Farm arena the safest, most efficient and largest polling location in Georgia." Hawks owner Tony Ressler said in a press briefing when the partnership was first announced. "We believe this is good for Atlanta, good for Fulton County, good for Georgia, really good for the country. Having everyone in our organization participating is something we are all so very proud of."

In October 2018, the State Farm Arena reopened after a $213 million renovation, to national acclaim — in 2020, it was named Pollstar's 2020 best new concert venue. Now that it's also a state-of-the-art-polling location, ideal for socially distant voting, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) has decided to reopen its locations servicing the arena, to make it easier for voters to get to the stadium to vote. The Hawks Foundation is providing free parking for people who are voting.

Praising the arena's efforts to help voters to keep their distance, Mary Carole Cooney, chairperson of the Fulton County Board of Registration & Elections, said, "We appreciate the Hawks for coming to us with this creative solution."

In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, Georgians on both sides of the political spectrum are praising the alliance. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, called the partnership, "great example of how the public sector and the private sector can work together to address the issues we saw on June 9." And Stacey Abrams, a Democrat and the creator of the Georgia based voting rights group Fair Fight, tweeted that the partnership shows "leadership in action."

Those who cast ballots in the June 9 Georgia primary experienced long waits, amid reports of poll workers who didn't know how to work Georgia's new voting machines and no-show poll workers who feared contracting COVID-19. During the run-up to the primary, voters in various counties also expressed concern about delays in receiving their absentee ballots, though they had submitted their requests on time. The majority of these issues occurred in Fulton County, a county that has the largest share of black voters in the state.

Darby is one of the 150 full-time employees of the Hawks and State Farm Arena who have offered to help with polling location staffing. And the Hawks have paid up to 20 part-time employees to assist with voting, too. Employees were offered varying levels of commitment, with some training to become full-fledged poll workers.

Darby took a four-hour crash course so that he could be deputized as a poll worker, enabling him to interface with voting platforms. He said he was trained by Fulton County on operating the machines, and said that during the early voting leading up to Tuesday's runoff election, these responsibilities become his "top priority." He viewed this week's runoff election as an "exhibition" for the general election this fall.

"It cleared my calendar, for sure." Darby said. "We had two shifts a day in the morning and then the afternoon. So, work a shift and then come home and try to, you know, catch up on emails, join any other calls, anything like that. It wasn't like this the only thing I was working on, but it was certainly like our primary focus."

It's been a rewarding experience for Darby, and he said it's something he would "definitely" do again for future elections.

"I came in with very little knowledge on the actual kind of dynamics of an election. I would say that I was definitely an engaged citizen but not really understanding exactly how everything works in the electoral process," he said. "It's something that I've really enjoyed and feel like, you know, can continue to contribute beyond just this kind of environment."

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