LeBron James was mad and frustrated by the sight of voters in Georgia counties who were waiting upward of five hours to cast their ballots in the state primary last month.
In firing off a tweet that attacked the structural racism of voter suppression, it also created an opportunity for the NBA’s most impactful player to continue his example of activism and awareness that will extend nationwide this year.
James and his business partner, Maverick Carter, joined Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to form the More Than A Vote initiative, recruiting the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks as partners to volunteer their facilities to combat voter suppression for what will be a critical election season.
The Hawks announced State Farm Arena will be used as a voting precinct for registered voters to vote early. The Pistons Performance Center, located near downtown Detroit in the New Center area, will be used as a satellite office where people can register to vote two weeks before election day.
Citizens also can receive and return absentee ballots at the Detroit location.
These efforts are preventative measures for disenfranchised areas — the difficult voting situations in Fulton and Dekalb counties in Georgia are not uncommon in black communities — where broken voting machines or ones that don't function properly can cause voters to turn away or not show up at all.
“It was frustrating. We, as election administrators, we know what we need,” Benson told Yahoo Sports. “We need to educate voters on what their options are, [and need] people to staff for the polling locations. There's real clarity on what the needs are. And to have those needs not be fulfilled, in Georgia but in other states as well, has been very frustrating.”
Benson has worked with James, who was on the board of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), since the organization’s founding in 2015.
James and Carter came to Benson, looking for advice on how to help during a critical election season. James had already campaigned for Hillary Clinton in his home state of Ohio during the 2016 presidential election and has never been afraid to dip his toe into political waters.
But when Benson surveyed the landscape, she knew it would take more than the traditional athlete PSA telling people to register to vote.
So More Than A Vote was formed because it does much more than just encourage action. Atlanta and Detroit are just the start, with the organization expecting more NBA teams and NFL teams to get involved, as well as some flagship franchises in Major League Baseball, sources told Yahoo Sports.
College facilities are on the list because so many are located in non-NBA cities with young demographics and have a wide reach, as well as WNBA franchises.
The mission, especially for first-time voters, is to let them know about the process and how to troubleshoot if things go awry because many won’t be voting traditionally this year.
“This is the year to help, as LeBron has said, to develop a tutorial for citizens on how to vote during a pandemic,” Benson said. “How to ensure they know their rights in the midst of concerted efforts to deceive, particularly voters in urban communities, about their rights.
“And they have a critical role to play as athletes, as trusted voices, of cutting through the rhetoric and speaking the truth to communities who need to hear the truth to how to ensure their votes are counted and voices are heard this year.”
A subset of voter suppression is voter education, or rather, misinformation. James and Carter looked ahead to identify problems and wanted to act before it was too late.
They’re educating many on the ins and outs of casting a ballot, how to complete a ballot, how to make sure the ballot is counted and even what to do if a ballot appears to be lost in the mail.
"I've been really moved and inspired by how sincere and committed LeBron and Maverick and his team have been,” Benson said. “They're in this with the most sincere and well-thought out reasons and rationale. Caring about the people and the people who look up to them and looking to do right by them.”
It’s no secret the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected Black communities, and it shouldn’t be a secret voter suppression is aimed at the same audience.
“It's also a need that's couched in the recognition that this year, more than ever before, will be a real effort to misinform voters that we're already seeing,” Benson said. “The sanctity of the process, the faith they can put in voting by mail, a lot of scare tactics to diminish people's interest in participating, utilizing the pandemic and other things. So it's a secondary need of education in the midst of a counter effort to misinform the public that makes the voices of the athletes and the sports community all the more needed right now.”
Introducing, educating and reinforcing these communities of their options for election day is the first priority. Benson estimates 60 to 70 percent of Michigan voters will be voting by mail this fall, likely due to the pandemic.
The Pistons, who moved from suburban Auburn Hills to downtown Detroit in 2017, are immersing themselves in the city, and according to those close to vice chairman Arn Tellem, “want to be the most socially engaged team in the NBA.”
“When I think about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others who’ve been murdered, I think about the dead cannot cry out for justice. It’s for the living to do for them,” Tellem said. “In our discussions, how can we make ourselves heard and voices count? The vote is the most powerful way we can attack justice and affect change. It led to our discussions with the secretary of state and [to] find ways to educate voters, make them aware, make sure their votes count and be civically engaged as a team and community and a city we care deeply about.”
Tellem said voting is just the first aspect of engagement to gain the attention of those in power.
"There’s an inability of those with power to empathize with those who are not," he said. "Voting can change that attitude, hopefully. When I think about where we’re headed, the economic crisis, health crisis, social justice, we can be hopeful."
James’ booming voice, one that he hasn’t been afraid to use to address matters regarding police brutality and education, will resonate more than the traditional politician trying to sway and encourage voters, Benson said.
“Trusted voices, hometown heroes, being messengers for that information [comes] from a place of real authenticity,” Benson said. “Talking to these athletes, they have the same questions and they want to get it answered.”
Benson has long believed in the power of athletic voices. From her time at RISE, she said so much enormous potential was being underutilized. She’s co-created a task force for women in sports to pursue equality, a mark of her own passion.
“I found it to be very siloed in many ways, but those are silos many are working to break down,” she said. “I found it to be lacking diversity across the board in positions of authority, particularly in the NFL and to a certain extent the NBA.”
Watching the bravery of WNBA players was even more inspiring, considering they don’t have the same platform as NBA players but approached issues of social justice with fearlessness.
Maya Moore is a prime example, taking seasons off from the WNBA in the fight to exonerate Jonathan Irons following a burglary and assault conviction.
“Women in the WNBA and women of color are light years ahead of their male counterparts in activism and advocacy,” Benson said. “There's less attention, so their story wasn't being told as much, but they were willing to sacrifice their pay, their platform to make change.”
James has grown into his voice, continuing to press on issues that matter to him and his community while also using his considerable influence to leverage matters with his corporate sponsors.
This movement started with a tweet but has expanded into so much more — and there’s no telling how far his reach can extend.
"This can become a movement of arenas and sports personnel and athletes across the country, lending a hand, being part of the work this year to make democracy accessible for all,” Benson said. “We've seen the problems already. By providing areas to create space for voting, by providing people and staff to help build out a strong workforce of election workers and by educating communities, they have an enormous capacity to solve problems that are affecting our democracy and ensure November goes smoothly.”
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