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Armour: Pro Teams Want Fans to Vote, and not Just for the Silly Stuff

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Vivek Ranadive, the majority owner of the Sacramento Kings NBA basketball team, leads employees in a cheer during a visit to the team's offices at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2013. Photo: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

By Nancy Armour |

There’s nobody better at getting people to vote than professional sports teams. They run campaigns around All-Star teams, mascots, new concession items, you name it.

So why not put that muscle behind something that really matters?

Troubled by the low percentage of Americans who exercise their most fundamental right, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive set out to do something about it. He contacted a few friends who also own sports teams in the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball, and together they launched Rally the Vote, a nonpartisan effort to get fans to register.

“I’m an immigrant, so I’ve always had special appreciation for the democracy and the amazing country that is the United States,” Ranadive told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “As a sports team owner, I recognize that it’s a huge privilege to own a team, but it’s also a responsibility. We have this huge platform when we become owners.

“You can push a button on your phone now and get anything,” he added. “Let’s make democracy as accessible and frictionless. We have an opportunity as sports teams and sports teams’ owners to really make that happen in a way that’s unique.”

Beginning Tuesday, the nine teams involved in Rally the Vote – Ranadive’s Kings, the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks; the Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants of MLB; and the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers – are using their mobile apps and social media accounts to encourage fans to register to vote and then vote.

The teams are also providing a link to TurboVote, which will allow fans to register to vote, file for absentee ballots and get reminders about upcoming local and national elections. And Sacramento rookie Marvin Bagley III filmed a PSA encouraging fans to vote, which the Kings will show before games ahead of the Oct. 22 deadline to register in California.

The program was launched Tuesday to coincide with National Voter Registration Day.

“Nobody can argue with democracy,” Ranadive said.

The NFL and, to a lesser degree the NBA, has been roiled by politics over the past few years. President Donald Trump has been stinging in his criticism of NFL players who protest during the national anthem to draw attention to racial and economic inequality. NBA stars such as LeBron James and Steph Curry have been outspoken in their criticism of the president, as well as the systemic discrimination that taints our judicial and educational systems.

But Rally the Vote isn’t about a particular politician or party, or even a specific election, Ranadive said. It’s about reminding people of the importance of their vote.

The number of Americans who vote is embarrassingly low. Turnout in 2016, a presidential election, was 61.4%, while midterms draw less than half the population.

“The only way to have a healthy democracy is to have the vast majority of the people who are eligible to vote voting. Otherwise, the will of the people is not represented,” said Mike Ward, director of the TurboVote program for Democracy Works, a nonpartisan group focused on simplifying the infrastructure around voting.

The first step is making sure people are registered.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 32.6 million Americans over the age of 18 said they were not registered to vote in the 2016 election, and another 33.8 million did not respond to the question.

Ranadive said making voting easier only makes sense. Technology has put the world at our fingertips, with mobile devices making it possible to order food, schedule a doctor’s appointment, get playoff tickets and even buy a car without ever leaving our couches.

Why shouldn’t it be the same for voting?

“The new generation, they expect that ease of access to everything,” Ranadive said. “A lot of (not voting) is just the friction. That just reinforces the apathy.”

What makes Rally the Vote so intriguing is its potential reach. We’ve all seen the PSAs from celebrities encouraging Americans to vote, but those don’t carry the same weight as hearing from your favorite player or seeing the message on your team’s website.

And studies have shown that the earlier someone registers and casts their vote, the more likely they are to continue voting throughout their life. So the 13-year-old who follows the Bucks on Instagram or the 16-year-old who idolizes Bagley might start thinking about voting years before they would have otherwise.

“It’s not just, `Oh, this famous person is asking me to vote,’” Ward said. “There’s more a sense of a community. You’re part of the franchise.”

Of all the work professional teams do in their community, nothing is more important than this. Our democracy requires active engagement. Our votes are our voices.

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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