The Miami Heat’s push to bring voting to the AmericanAirlines Arena was going so well with the county’s Elections Department that it was on a draft list of polling places. The next day, the county’s elections supervisor received a text from her boss, Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
“We [need] to talk,” Gimenez wrote Elections Supervisor Christina White, forwarding an article about the the NBA’s plan to channel demands for social justice into a voting drive by turning arenas into polling places.
Miami-Dade’s Election Department announced it had rejected the Heat’s offer on Sept. 5, saying the logistics and transit options were better at the nearby Frost Science Museum.
The decision brought a blistering response from the Heat, with team executives saying they were baffled that Miami-Dade had changed its mind on an agreement that appeared all but done.
“To say we are disappointed is an understatement,” the Heat said in its statement. “But to the extent that forces involved in making this decision think this will quiet our voice on the importance of voting, they should know we will not be deterred.”
Records released Friday detail the backstory behind the scuffle between Gimenez, a Republican candidate for Congress, and the Heat over the team’s offer to use one of the county’s best-known buildings for two weeks of early voting underway now.
The correspondence shows Elections administrators were on the brink of signing a deal to accept the Heat’s offer and open up its home court arena to early voting during the November election.
But the email communication to wrap up the agreement ended shortly after the Gimenez text.
A top Gimenez aide said Friday the main factor helping the Frost was an adjoining Metromover station, along with downsides of the Heat arena that includes the inability use it in later years once the NBA’s regular fall playoff schedule resumed. But she said the administration also had concerns the AA Arena could end up a “political” site.
Would the AmericanAirlines Arena be ‘apolitical’?
“Polling places are supposed to be apolitical,” said Deputy Mayor Jennifer Moon, who oversees the Elections Department. “That was part of the discussion. Would it be an apolitical site?… I think we couldn’t conclude it would be completely apolitical. We don’t have control over the entire building.”
At the time, the arena had a large “Black Lives Matter” sign facing Biscayne Boulevard, and NBA players had been active in the racial-justice protests that followed George Floyd’s May 25 death by Minneapolis police, including by sitting out games.
Moon said the Black Lives Matter sign wasn’t a factor, but that there was concern about whether Elections could count on a lack of political messages at a massive building with a jumbo electronic billboard.
A firestorm over Miami-Dade’s rejecting the Heat voting offer
Miami-Dade’s rejection of the Heat offer set off a firestorm from Democrats. Gimenez’s Democratic opponent in Florida’s 26th Congressional District race, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, accused the mayor of “voter suppression” for not using a facility bound to generate excitement for would-be voters.
“The Miami Heat stepped up,” she said in a press conference outside the arena the day after Miami-Dade made its decision public. “Their plan made sense… This is a slap in the face to our team.”
The emails requested by the Miami Herald in September were released Friday after writer Grant Stern sued the county over a similar request for records related to the AA Arena decision.
Emails from the Elections Department show advanced talks with Heat management about using the arena to replace the agency’s normal downtown polling place, the Arsht Center. The Center’s parking lots were tied up from nearby highway construction, and elections administrators were shopping for new sites.
Frost had some issues.
A July 9 email from Miriam Rivero, the county’s early voting manager, said the ground-floor 1,200-square-foot space offered by the museum wouldn’t accommodate the normal number of voting machines deployed to the Arsht. “If we are only going to use 1,200 sq feet, we would need to scale back the quantity of equipment assigned,” Rivero wrote White.
Meanwhile, emails show the Heat eager to offer its 21,000-seat arena for early voting. The county-owned arena was empty at the time, with all NBA players competing in isolation in Orlando during the league’s COVID-altered season in the “bubble.”
The NBA was pushing its arenas as voting sites as part of an effort to address issues of social justice in the wake of the Floyd killing.
“Given the interest in Tuesday’s election and the public’s continued attention on the Presidential race, we are more confident that the Arena can be an early voting super-center that caters to the voter first,” Heat executive Nicholas Martinez wrote White on Aug. 26.
White and her staff were interested. They toured the arena, and advanced talks to the point that the arena was placed on the draft list of 33 early voting sites an Elections staff circulated on Aug. 28.
One rule: No Heat sponsorship for voting
That day, White sent Martinez an email saying the county was modifying its polling-place agreement to certain terms the county wanted. That included a no-fee rental of the facility, and an agreement the polling place would not be “’hosted’ or ‘sponsored’ by the HEAT Group…”
“If acceptable, we can proceed with the final details,” White wrote.
The next day, Xavier Pichs, an early voting supervisor, sent a request to update the department’s computerized list of polling places. “Can you please add Site #57 as AmericanAirlines Arena located at 601 Biscayne Blvd, Miami FL 33132. Management will be providing the contact for this location.”
That was the same morning Gimenez sent his text message to White.
From that day on, the email exchanged appeared to go quiet. “Hello again,” the Heat’s Martinez wrote White on Aug. 31, asking for a response and noting “time is of the essence.”
Later, a secretary at the Elections Department emailed White about a call from Martinez. “He says he sent you an email and to please call him back.”