Why the Detroit Pistons are earning praise for voter galvanization efforts

Vince Ellis
Special for Pistons.com

With the COVID-19 crisis still ongoing, voters need safe options for the upcoming election.

The Detroit Pistons continue to assist those efforts.

On the first day of early voting, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem unveiled a voting drop box that sits just outside the Henry Ford Pistons Performance Center located in the New Center neighborhood.

Starting Thursday, Michigan residents could submit absentee ballots to locations around the state. The PPC receptacle is one of 30 in the city of Detroit that will be available daily until Nov. 3.

Tellem did the honors in cutting the ribbon and afterward Benson noted the Pistons’ civic engagement since owner Tom Gores and the organization said words were not enough to address calls for change in the wake of George Floyd’s death in late May. Shortly after the statement, the Pistons announced the PPC would be used to assist voting efforts during the August primary and November general election – one of the first franchises to make that pledge.

With an expected record turnout, these spaces are needed to mitigate large crowds on election day when social distancing will still be needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“The Pistons were one of the first teams to step up and say we want to be part of making democracy work this year,” Benson said. “That’s what the Pistons believe in and dedicated their work to, and they’ve just not talked the talk, they’ve walked the walk.”

After the unveiling, Pistons volunteers distributed how-to door hangers in New Center and other Detroit neighborhoods with low voter registration totals.

Earlier this week, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris was the featured speaker at a voting awareness event held at the PPC. The Pistons efforts have drawn the notice of elected officials.

“I’m very grateful the Pistons decided to partner with our secretary of state and install a drop box,” Winfrey said. “In all my times in elections this is the first time the entire community wants to be involved and it’s such a welcome change.

“It sends a very significant and positive message. I’m not really a sports girl, but I do know that sports teams are getting involved in social issues that plague our country, so I think it sends a positive message.”

 Ownership impact

 Although the Pistons’ efforts will continue through election day, Thursday offered an opportunity to reflect on the past few months.

While the country was still coping with the effects of the pandemic, Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.

Floyd’s killing – and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery – sparked a wave of protests throughout the country and forced a racial reckoning that is still ongoing.

Gores also announced a series of initiatives; galvanizing voter registration in an election year was one of the top directives.

The efforts were spearheaded by Tellem and vice president of community and social responsibility Erika Swilley.

“I couldn’t do the work that I do without the blessing of our ownership group, Tom and Arn,” Swilley said. “Between the two of them, giving me the freedom and giving me the go-ahead in these types of things is huge.”

The PPC will be a satellite center for the Nov. 3 election, where people can register and vote. Afterward, the ballot can be placed in the drop box outside the PPC. Election day will be a paid off-day to ensure all employees can vote and volunteer as election workers. The PPC also served as a receiving center for four voting precincts for the August primary.

The Pistons have completed multiple public service announcements reminding Michiganders the importance of voting. The SOS office has also assisted in getting Pistons players registered.

“(The Pistons) have been critical partners for us and you see this partnership as one that’s going to be a model for the rest of the country,” Benson said shortly before the primary. “It fills a need in ways that other companies and assets can’t fill because here you have a public facility and people and a platform that can cut through rhetoric and deliver educational information to voters.”

 ‘This country we love’

 The mood was festive in the PPC player’s parking lot on the first day of fall, which was also National Voter Registration Day.

Mask wearing, socially distancing guests awaited the arrival of Harris, who spent Tuesday encouraging voter turnout in Michigan.

The Detroit Youth Choir, who partnered with the Pistons in a music video honoring healthcare in the early days of the pandemic, started proceedings.

Tellem welcomed guests.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan all spoke before Harris. Former Pistons star Ben Wallace was one of several franchise representatives seated in the crowd. 

Media reports called the gathering the keynote for the California senator's trip to the state where she spent the day in Flint and Detroit.

Harris gave an energetic stump speech, but she concluded with a hypothetical question.

What will we tell future generations about the 2020 election?

“We will tell them we were hanging out at the Pistons’ backyard,” Harris exclaimed. “We will tell them we were hanging out with the Detroit Youth Choir and the governor and the senator and the mayor.

“We will tell them we were committed … to doing everything we possibly can to making sure we vote and everyone we know votes and in that way fights for this country we love.”