A digital avatar of former President Barack Obama appeared in the virtual stands of the first game of the NBA Championship series on Wednesday.
Alongside an avatar of basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, Obama watched as Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers routed the Miami Heat. But while the former president appreciates a good jump shot just as much as the next basketball fan, he was there to support James’ “More Than a Vote” campaign.
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The initiative aims to overcome Black voter suppression and recruit a legion of young people to volunteer at the polls in mostly Black districts during the 2020 federal election because of anticipated personnel shortages stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I wanted to come on to give a shout out to all the folks who are volunteering as poll workers in the upcoming elections,” Obama said, as various digital avatars bobbled around him. “It can be a thankless job. It’s not one of those things you think about, but it’s absolutely vital for our democracy and I appreciate you and hopefully all NBA fans appreciate you when they see those shorter lines at the polling places.”
Always look forward to watching the NBA Finals––and tonight I had the chance to thank a great group of first-time poll workers with @morethanavote.— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 1, 2020
It’s critical that everybody votes in this election––by mail or in person if you can. Register to vote at https://t.co/d5gaMVt7hl. pic.twitter.com/KgW5DAxnvn
The effort to get poll workers is called “We Got Next” and was developed with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. So far, an estimated 10,000 people have volunteered to help out as poll workers, according to the New York Times.
The campaign focuses on 11 cities — Birmingham, Jackson, Houston, San Antonio, Montgomery, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia — many of which have a history of voter suppression.
“More Than a Vote” was launched earlier this summer in response to the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, rampant police police brutality, and systemic inequality more broadly. NBA players teamed up with athletes from other sports and Black artists and activists to launch the campaign with a poignant open letter that makes the case for civic engagement and voting in particular.
“As a team we came together to focus on one issue this year: systemic racism’s impact on our right to vote,” the open letter reads. “Black voter suppression has many forms. We are focusing on the threat of COVID-19 as a tool of suppression, the abuse of political power to make voting more difficult and the misinformation intended to intimidate and deceive our community.”
Since then, the coalition has raised awareness about voting, invited people to register to vote and make plans for voting, and encouraged people to volunteer to become poll workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented obstacles to the 2020 election. Most immediately, the contagious nature of the virus means that assembling in crowded places is inherently risky. As a result, extensive precautions have to be taken to ensure safe and hygienic in-person voting. The federal government, however, has so far failed to provide necessary resources to communities.
Further, a massive voter disinformation campaign has been waged across social media to cast doubt on mail-in voting, which has emerged as a safer alternative to in-person voting.
These new challenges intersect with long-standing barriers to the ballot box — such as voter purges, voter ID laws, and disrupted polling sites — that predominantly impact Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and poor people.
The “More Than a Vote” open letter details many of these barriers and draws attention to how Black communities have been hardest hit by COVID-19 in the US due to systemic neglect.
The letter also warns against misinformation.
“Shouldn’t surprise anyone, but those trying to spread false information on social media about the election target Black voters more aggressively than any other voters,” the letter reads. “More Than a Vote will be working with our partners to use our voices and influence to help share accurate information and to educate about voting.”
The campaign went into overdrive following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. NBA players staged a strike and urged the league to convert stadiums into voting sites.
James, in particular, has become an impassioned advocate for voter turnout and civic engagement, using his social media platforms to raise awareness.
“That’s the hope everyday that you can educate and you can get people motivated to go out and create change.”@KingJames discusses his @morethanavote campaign. #NBAFinalspic.twitter.com/BOEpAU47ka— NBA TV (@NBATV) October 1, 2020
The superstar is following in the footsteps of other historic community organizers, including Obama.
“Democracy doesn’t work if just a few people do it,” Obama said in his brief appearance Wednesday night. “That’s like playing with half the team. But it’s only that way if people don’t participate. If people get involved, then we get the best of us.”
Global Citizen and HeadCount have teamed up to launch Just Vote, a campaign mobilizing young Americans to register to vote ahead of the 2020 election and beyond. As part of the campaign, your favorite artists and entertainers are offering exclusive experiences, performances, and memorabilia — and they can only be unlocked once eligible voters check their voter registration status. Learn more about Just Vote and how you can take action here.