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Tina Casey headshot

The NBA Needs to Go Further on GOTV for the Midterm Elections

By Tina Casey
NBA

Professional sports organizations have been getting more involved in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, and the NBA appeared to raise the bar last week, when it announced that it would schedule no games on Election Day. However, the league and its teams still need to decide whether or not to choose a side, even as one of the two major political parties in the U.S. continues its pell-mell lurch into dangerous extremism.

Drawing attention to the midterm elections is an important step

The NBA won the media spotlight last Tuesday, when it tweeted out its intentions for Election Day 2022. In the tweet, the league clarified that it is picking no sides. It is simply encouraging the individual teams to “promote civic engagement in their respective markets.”

“The NBA today announced that no games will be played on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022,” the league stated, emphasizing that “the scheduling decision came out of the NBA family’s focus on promoting nonpartisan civic engagement and encouraging fans to make a plan to vote during the midterm elections.”

AP reporter Tim Reynolds points out that at least two other major league sports teams have scheduled no games on Election Day for decades, without drawing any media attention at all: Major League Baseball always ends its schedule before Election Day, and the National Football League has only played a handful of games on a Tuesday since the 1940s.

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Still, the NBA announcement raises the profile of the midterm elections, and that could be a game-changer in terms of voter turnout.

Both voter motivation and media attention fall dramatically during the midterm election cycle, compared to presidential election years. According to a 2017 study published by Pew Research Center, midterm voters tend to be those who are engaged politically on a consistent basis, not just every four years.

The “drop-off” phenomenon is especially acute among younger, non-white and less economically advantaged voters. That demographic divide means that the midterm electorate skews toward a highly motivated demographic that tends to vote Republican: white, older, and relatively affluent.

Voting rights and the midterm drop-off phenomenon

All else being equal, the midterm drop-off would not necessarily have an impact on the political balance in Congress. However, back in 2010 several Republican-led state legislatures exacerbated the demographic skew, when they engineered a round of gerrymandering aimed at diluting the ability of Democratic candidates to win seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 2013 a majority decision by the Republican-appointed justices on the U.S. Supreme Court also impacted the demographic divide when they threw key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That cleared the way for states to enact new voting restrictions, many of which repress the ability of Democratic candidates to win seats in the U.S. Senate and other statewide races.

The 2013 Supreme Court decision continues to ripple out in powerful waves to this day. It provided former President Trump and his allies with more leverage to argue for even tighter restrictions during the 2020 election cycle, under the guise of false allegations about voter fraud.

Trump and his allies doubled down on voter fraud even more during the 2020 cycle, thus setting the stage for the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

The insurrection did not end on January 6, 2021

Last year’s bloody attack on the U.S. Capitol failed to reverse the results of the 2020 election, but the threat of violence never stopped. The insurrectionists simply changed strategies, as well as Trump and his allies. After the mob was turned away on January 6, 2021, the points of attack began to diffuse across election offices throughout the nation.

Within a few months, the growing threat of violence against election officials and workers spurred the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to establish a task force to address the problem on a national basis.

The task force launched in July of 2021. Earlier this month DOJ provided an update on its activities during a virtual meeting with hundreds of election officials and workers.

Since July 2021, DOJ has investigated 1,000 threats to election officials and workers. Verbal threats often do not rise to the level of a crime, but the agency did determine that approximately 11 percent of the contacts met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation.

DOJ also uncovered a connection between threats of violence and the series of lawsuits and mismanaged recounts that muddied the electoral waters in closely contested states after the 2020 election.

“Election officials in states with close elections and post-election contests were more likely to receive threats. 58 percent of the total of potentially criminal threats were in states that underwent 2020 post-election lawsuits, recounts, and audits, such as Arizona, Georgia, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin,” DOJ explained.

So, what exactly can the NBA do?

Against this backdrop, the NBA’s emphasis on nonpartisan politics is weak tea indeed.  

A key element in the Republican playbook is to undermine any nonpartisan institution that promotes independent thinking. That includes any organization with deep roots in the civic landscape, including the Girl Scouts of America, public schools and universities, and, increasingly, professional sports leagues.

The extremism has already proved too much for the League of Women Voters, an organization that was formerly notorious for its militantly hands-off approach to partisan politics.

In an article published last week, the independent news organization ProPublica noted that “…two days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the league’s board of directors called then-President Donald Trump a “tyrannical despot” and blamed him for inciting the violence and for threatening democracy. The league demanded his removal from office ‘via any legal means.’”

If the NBA expects an expression of nonpartisanship to protect it from accusations of political bias, that ship sailed back in 2020 after the league embraced the Black Lives Matter movement.

The voter fraud canard is nothing more than white supremacy written into law, and it is just one part of an all-encompassing drift into undemocratic extremism. The Republican Party and its media allies have embraced hardcore anti-women and anti-LGBTQ policies, terrorized trans youth, their families and care providers, and promoted book bans and educational censorship among other acts of repression that undermine the mainstream of democratic progress in the U.S.

How to not drop the GOTV ball

The NBA still has an opportunity to advocate for candidates who support human rights, civil rights and the rule of law.

For example, the NBA announcement makes it clear that each team is free to exercise its GOTV initiatives as it sees fit, and to share voting resources from its partners.

That can pack a powerful punch. During the 2020 election cycle, the NBA and WNBA both partnered with The Civic Alliance, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Power the Polls, Rock the Vote and other organizations.

The NBA can also help make election workers and other stakeholders aware that the DOJ is encouraging members of the public to report threats to its confidential tip line, 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324), or file a complaint online at tips.fbi.gov.

The Brennan Center for Justice is another potential resource for such collaboration. Earlier this month the organization published an assessment of election misinformation, including guidance for ensuring that voters are not misled.

If the Republican party persists in fielding candidates for office who fail to meet simple, basic standards of human rights and civil rights in a modern democracy, that’s on them. The NBA is not obligated to pretend that Republican candidates are capable of governing responsibly, nor is any other business organization in the U.S.

Image credit: Marius Christensen via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey