When LeBron James and other high-profile athletes and entertainers combined to create More than a Vote, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting Black voters, plenty of observers took a wait-and-see approach.
Ethan Scheiner, a political science professor at UC Davis, was among them. His research focuses on the intersection of sports and politics, and he’s seen other well-intentioned efforts go into a quick stall.
But that’s not what he’s seen from More than a Vote, which, according to people with knowledge of the negotiations, is engaging in conversations to add sports venues in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Denver and Miami as polling locations for the presidential election in November. Previously, the organization reached similar agreements with NBA arenas in Atlanta, Detroit, Sacramento and Charlotte.
On Thursday, as James and the Lakers prepared to restart the NBA season in Orlando, Fla., against the Clippers, More than a Vote announced it was forming a bipartisan advisory committee of current and former election administrators to guide future initiatives.
Last week, the organization said it would donate $100,000 to a grassroots group in Florida that is working to mitigate a law that requires felons who’ve served their prison sentences to pay all outstanding restitution fees before they are eligible to vote.
“They aren’t just saying, ‘Hey, everybody, let’s go out and vote,'” Scheiner said. “They are actually thinking carefully about the underlying issues of voter suppression in the United States.”
In the past, Scheiner said, activism by athletes came in the form of singular actions or gestures. He cited boxing champion Muhammad Ali dodging the Vietnam War draft, Olympicmedalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the medal stand in 1968 and NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem as examples.
A better parallel to what James’ group is doing would be Jim Brown’s founding in the 1960s of what was originally called the Negro Industrial Economic Union, later the Black Economic Union, Scheiner said. The Hall of Fame running back formed the organization to promote and support Black-owned businesses, economic development and social issues across the county.
If More than a Vote can rally participation by voters who otherwise would not have participated, James would reach a new level of activism among athletes, the professor said.
“No one has really done this before,” Scheiner said.
Seasoned political minds help run the organization and steer its mission. Addisu Demissie, executive director of More than a Vote, managed New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign and California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, tapped Demissie in June to help steer preparations for the party’s convention in Milwaukee. Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, also advises More Than a Vote.
The new advisory group includes Pamela Anderson, executive director of the Colorado Clerk’s Assn.; David Becker, a former Department of Justice attorney and head of the Pew Research Center’s elections division; former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson; Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose; and New Jersey Secretary of State Tanesha Way.
Demissie said Maverick Carter, James’ lifelong friend and business partner, approached him in February with the idea of starting the nonprofit. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled the conversations, but they picked up in earnest after the death of George Floyd sparked protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
“Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us — we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door,” James said in a recent interview with the New York Times. “How long is up to us. We don’t know. But we feel like we’re getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference.”
More Than a Vote announced it was forming on June 10, a day after voting machines malfunctioned at polls in Georgia, forcing voters to stand in long lines in pouring rain.
The organization includes 32 athletes, media personalities and entertainers, including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green and Olympic runner Allyson Felix. Demissie said the group collectively decides where and how to use their resources.
The initial funding will come from James, Carter, music industry executive Jimmy Iovine and James’ investment advisor Paul Watcher. It will be operated as a 501(c)(4) group under Internal Revenue rules, meaning it can to engage in political activities but cannot advocate for specific candidates.
“We know how to create culturally compelling content that will break through the noise, and that’s the niche we’re trying to occupy,” Demissie said. “And we want to partner with every group on the ground that is doing good work to fight voter suppression for future years.”
Black voter participation in 2016, according to Pew, fell for the first time in 20 years, plunging by seven percentage points.
During one of their first conference calls, Demissie said, Green seemed embarrassed to reveal he had not voted since 2008.
“We don’t want you to be ashamed of that,” Demissie recalled telling him. “There are a lot of people like that. And we want you to tell that story, because if people see someone like you re-engaging in politics, that may cause them to re-engage.”
This month, Green and Benson held a virtual session with the Michigan State football team, offering details about how to vote in the state’s primary. Renee Montgomery, a WNBA player for the Atlanta Dream who chose to sit out this season to promote social reform, is organizing a voter education campaign in the city.
Other More than a Vote partners held an online discussion this week for players of Fortnite, the popular video game. Benson said it has been inspiring to see athletes work with election administrators and local organizations to understand the issues and then pass on what they learned.
“People in every sport are trying to find ways to build solidarity with people who sometimes feel their voices are not heard and their work is unseen,” Benson said. “Taking the enormous spotlight that is on these athletes and the sports industry and turning those efforts to see equality and justice has been a significant contribution.”
Benson said More than a Vote hopes to add polling locations and combat misinformation about vote-by-mail practices.
Nearly 60% of poll workers in the 2018 election were over 61 years old, according to Pew, an age group susceptible to more serious complications from the coronavirus. As a result, many poll workers have declined to participate in recent primaries and election officials closed some voting locations. For example, Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, had only one polling location for its June primary.
Securing large, indoor sports venues as polling sites should encourage more people to vote while adhering to social distancing rules. More Than a Vote is also asking organizations and businesses to give employees election day off so they can volunteer at the polls.
Coronavirus fears have also led some states to expand their vote-by-mail programs. But President Trump has been critical of that campaign, saying that voting by mail is prone to election fraud, despite research that indicates otherwise.
After Benson mailed absentee ballot applications to registered Michigan voters in May, Trump lashed out at her on Twitter, falsely saying it was “illegal” and calling her a “rouge Secretary of State.” He also threatened to withhold federal funding from the state.
Benson said it was important to ensure people have faith in the electoral process, and that anyone who is strategically sowing seeds of doubt should be called out. Pro athletes, she added, have the clout to be whistleblowers to deceit.
“I believe the truth will cut through the misinformation if it’s delivered through trusted voices,” she said.
Demissie is looking even further down the line. He and other organizers are already crafting the platform the organization will stand for after the election. For now, it’s all about getting people to vote in November. But for years to come, More than a Vote hopes to change predatory laws and hold politicians accountable.
“You’d better believe these athletes want more,” Demissie said. “And we are set up to do that. Let’s make sure that the people who are elected off the backs of hopefully a huge Black turnout then listen to these communities and empower them in ways they have been wanting for decades.”