• Thu. Nov 26th, 2020

LeBron James and a Multimillion-Dollar Push for More Poll Workers

More Than a Vote, a collective of athletes headlined by LeBron James that is fighting to combat voter suppression, will announce a multimillion-dollar initiative to increase the number of poll workers in Black electoral districts ahead of November’s general election.

The project, a collaboration with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, aims to recruit young people to serve at polling locations in Black communities in swing states, including Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio. The effort will involve poll worker recruitment, a paid advertising campaign and a corporate partnership program that will encourage employees to volunteer as poll workers.

Election officials throughout the country have reported a shortage of poll workers to staff in-person voting sites amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended every facet of American life — including the electoral process. In April, Wisconsin, one of the first states to hold a primary election after the virus spread nationally, had to cut in-person locations in Milwaukee to five from 180 because of poll worker shortages. Experts said the closures had a particular effect in Black communities, where access to in-person polling locations is already under threat. Residents in line waited for more than four hours, and many complained about not receiving a mail-in ballot after requesting one. The national outcry after the Wisconsin primary left a lasting impression on the group of athletes, which formed More Than a Vote in June in the wake of a national outcry against ongoing racism.

Mr. James and several other basketball stars involved in the More Than a Vote effort are currently quarantined at the N.B.A. campus in Orlando, as the league seeks to finish its season and crown a champion. In a phone interview, two other members of the initiative — Michael Vick, the former N.F.L. star, and Renee Montgomery of the W.N.B.A. — framed the efforts as necessary to ensure equitable ballot access.

“As someone who had their voting rights restored,” said Mr. Vick, whose record-setting career was sunk after he pleaded guilty to a felony charge in 2007 for his involvement in a dogfighting ring, “I want to influence younger people to be a part of this More Than a Vote campaign.”

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“We want to get them to register, get involved and try to help society in whatever way they can,” he added. “It’s about becoming a leader in your own right.”

Ms. Montgomery, who plays for the Atlanta Dream, is currently sitting out the women’s basketball season to focus on political activism. She is a former college national champion and W.N.B.A. champion with the Minnesota Lynx.

“I felt like I needed to do something in my community,” Ms. Montgomery said. “We can’t just protest. We have a responsibility to take those protests and take that energy and march all the way to the polls.”

“I live in Atlanta, so this issue is right on my front door,” she added. “We have the long lines, it’s condensed and Covid is being used as a way to have voter suppression.”

This is More Than a Vote’s second national campaign. Previous efforts included partnerships with teams in Los Angeles and Atlanta to turn their stadiums into polling places, as well as a statewide effort in Florida to help the formerly incarcerated restore their voting rights. This year, athletes across the country — and particularly Black athletes — have seen a surge in political activism mirroring the national wave. Mr. Vick credited people like Mr. James and Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who knelt during the national anthem to protest racism, for making political advocacy a priority for the modern athlete.

“When you’re young, the way you look at life, you don’t think that your vote counts,” Mr. Vick said. “When that was taken away from me, I felt like I had an obligation. I felt like I did myself a disservice.”

In focusing on poll workers, the group has landed on an issue that election officials and civil rights organizations believe will loom large in this year’s election. Because election site volunteers had typically been older Americans, a population uniquely affected by the coronavirus, experts such as Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund worry about the effect of them staying home this year — reduced polling locations in November and possibly longer lines, all of which could reduce voter turnout.

Ms. Ifill said the push to recruit poll workers was part of a multipronged approach from voting rights organizations, whose persistent concerns about voter suppression and ballot access are now amplified by the coronavirus. Access to mail-in ballots should be ensured, she said, but states should also take precautions to make in-person voting safe and accessible.

“Black people, particularly middle-aged and older Black people, prefer to vote in person rather than vote by mail,” Ms. Ifill said. “We need more poll workers and we need younger poll workers who can be resilient and work during early voting as well.”

Jocelyn Benson, who as Michigan’s secretary of state oversees the election process there, said she was grateful for the spotlight the athletes will bring to the issue.

“We’ve had three successful elections in Michigan so far this year because we have been able to fully staff our poll,” Ms. Benson said. “If we don’t have that, we can’t operate an election.”

The increased attention on the issue, however, has been outpaced by the strong need for poll workers. Detroit and Flint, two of Michigan’s urban centers with a high percentage of Black residents, still need 1,000 to 2,000 poll workers, Ms. Benson said.

“This is the ballgame,” she said. “This is not just a benevolent effort. This is not just an important partnership. This is critical.”