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Research

Sports Stadiums Could Change the Game for Future Elections

Study by University Partnership With Nonprofit Finds Support for Use as Polling Sites

By Rachael Grahame ’17

A man votes at a voting both located in National Park

A nationwide survey conducted in part by UMD's Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement found that 77% of respondents "strongly" or "somewhat" supported continuing to use stadiums like Nationals Park (left) as polling sites.

Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Stadium voting, introduced at sites nationwide for the 2020 presidential election during the COVID-19 pandemic, was an effective tool to increase civic engagement, according to new research conducted by the University of Maryland and four other universities in partnership with the Civic Responsibility Project (CRP).

The cohort, which included UMD’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement, surveyed voters and interviewed local election officials and team representatives from cities—including Baltimore and Washington, D.C.—where major league sports teams converted stadiums into polling sites, and found that Americans supported that use.

“Teams, election officials and voters all expressed a great deal of enthusiasm,” said the center’s research director, government and politics Professor Michael Hanmer.

The national online survey of more than 2,100 individuals took place from March 22-29. When asked, “Do you support or oppose using sports stadiums as polling places for voting?” 77% of respondents said they “strongly” or “somewhat” supported it.

Proximity to the stadium was a good predictor of whether someone would vote there. In one case study, 18% of in-person voters who lived within 2.5 miles of the Washington Nationals’ home voted at Nationals Park, but just 1% of those who lived more than 2.5 miles away did so.

Researchers also found that those who voted in a stadium were able to take advantage of perks that might entice future voters to flock there, such as entertainment, team swag, photo opportunities outside of the voting booth, and help from stadium employees.

In addition, average wait times were often significantly shorter than at other local polling locations; the wait at Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena was 26 minutes, compared to four hours at some county polling sites.

UMD supported the stadium voting movement as well, for the first time welcoming polling at its Xfinity Center, home to Maryland Basketball, during the 2020 election.

“The 2020 election produced the highest voter turnout in over a century and shifted the conversation around corporate involvement in civic engagement,” said Ashley Spillane, co-founder of the Civic Responsibility Project, in a release. “The near-unanimous praise for stadium polling across party lines is an encouraging indication of the potential such collaborative efforts have to build on the momentum of the last election and drive participation in the midterms.”

But the data suggested that an increase in stadium voting should not necessarily lead to a decrease in the number of smaller, local polling places available to individuals. Three “very” or “somewhat” important reasons selected by those who said they opposed stadium voting were: “Not every community can benefit,” “Voting should be local” and “Stadium voting will divert resources from traditional polling places.”

Hanmer said UMD’s contribution to the project was a natural extension of the sports and politics survey work CDCE recently conducted with Mark Hyman, director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism, and The Washington Post.

“Mark helped us make important connections with a number of major league teams that participated in the research," he said.

One such connection was to Greg Bader, the Baltimore Orioles’ senior vice president of administration and experience. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, served as a polling place in 2020.

“It is important that every American has the ability to cast their vote, as that is the foundation of our democracy,” he said. “Our ballpark is conveniently located in the heart of downtown, and being able to provide that ease of access to our community was of utmost importance to encourage participation; and one we hope to continue to offer in the future.”

Hanmer added that he hopes stadiums and arenas “will be intentionally designed so that they can provide large, open, accessible and secure spaces that can be used for voting and other civic activities.”

The research team consisted of scholars from Columbia University, Harvard University, Rice University and Temple University. UMD graduate students Michael Dunphy ’21, who is pursuing an M.S. in applied political analytics, and Ted Ellsworth M.A. ’21, a Ph.D. candidate in government and politics, provided research assistance. The research was published by the Civic Responsibility Project in partnership with the Center for Election Innovation and Research and the Civic Alliance, and was administered by Temple University.

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