Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
On March 25, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed the Election Integrity Act of 2021 (SB 202) into law, sparking vocal criticism from many Democrats. One week later, on Apr. 2, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced its decision to relocate its All-Star Game, originally scheduled to take place on July 13 in Atlanta, out of Georgia.
Michael Bailey, associate professor of political science, said Georgia Republicans passed SB 202 in direct response to the widespread and unsubstantiated claims of election fraud advanced by many Republicans in the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election.
“Something along the lines of 60% of Republicans do not believe that the election results accurately represent the voting,” Bailey said. “My own sense is that they are completely mistaken and I haven’t seen any credible evidence whatsoever, and apparently neither have the courts, to suggest that any sort of election malfeasance or fraud would constitute anything that would result in overturning the election in any state. However, that was the narrative that was perpetuated by President Trump and it was purchased largely for political expedient reasons by Republican candidates. So the Republican legislature and Governor Kemp felt obligated, I’m sure, to address the concerns of their constituencies by passing a voting bill that, in their opinion, would re-establish the credibility of the voting system.”
Included in the law are provisions reducing the ease and amount of time available to request and send in an absentee ballot, changes to the availability of drop-off ballot boxes and restrictions on the distribution of food or beverages within 150 feet of polling places. While these modifications appear, on the surface, to be non-partisan, Bailey said there is an underlying belief that they will have a greater impact on Democrats.
“What we found out in 2020, and what we found out in previous elections, is almost inevitably the longest lines, the longest waits, where there seems to be the least access, easy access, to voter polls, do tend to be in historically poor and African American districts,” Bailey said. “So if you’re reading that you can’t give water or food to people who are waiting in line for a long time, and then we couple that with the people who are waiting in line for long time would be typically democratic voters, it seems to be aimed against that on first read, you certainly can interpret it that way.”
Additionally, changes to absentee ballots regulations will now require voters to use a valid state ID, something that not all citizens have access to. Bailey said the affected number is small, estimated at 3%, but will once again be heavily skewed against lower income, probably Democrat, voters.
With many athletes and sports organizations taking increasingly visible stands against social injustice in recent years, Brian Carroll, chair of the communication department, said the MLB’s response to the bill was a logical continuation of previous decisions.
“I didn’t react to it emotionally; I reacted to it as a sort of a business move, so I saw a brand doing something reasonable to maintain integrity of brand,” Carroll said. “So I like the move, I appreciate what they’re doing, but I see it primarily as a brand doing what’s best for the brand as much as the right and just response to a wrong and unjust law.”
Mark Howard, visiting assistant professor of Kinesiology who focuses on Sports Administration, said he was still slightly surprised, as MLB are usually one of the more conservative of the major leagues.
“I was a little surprised that they went ahead and did that, because in the past Major League Baseball as an organization hasn’t been probably on the forefront of racial or any social justice issue, really,” Howard said.
As for Bailey, he said he thought this reaction was as much about MLB’s bottom line as it was about ideology.
“When you look at profit-driven organizations, what makes the most sense for the reactions isn’t one of whether they understand the nuances of a bill; it’s not whether they are driven primarily by a sense of justice,” Bailey said. “I may be cynical here, but my sense is that when for-profit corporations make a kind of decision along those lines, it’s because they have the bottom line and optics first and foremost in mind.”
Bailey added that MLB’s reaction, much like the general response from the political left, has less to do with the actual contents of the bill, and more so with the intent itself. He said that while reasonable people could have a respectful discussion and disagree as to the merits of the contents of the bill, the real concern is what the bill represents.
“I think what Democrats are responding to, finally, isn’t so much the policy prescriptions in the bill; I think they’re responding far more to the fact that Republicans are passing any bill to begin with,” Bailey said. “The predicate of this bill, what’s driving it, is the purchasing of the big lie, that the election was stolen, that there was a lot of fraud. So to tinker with the election laws seems to them to be validating a fundamentally false premise.”
Even though he does not believe the bill will help Republicans as much as they hope or hurt Democrats as much as they fear, Bailey said the intent was clear.
“We consider voting a fundamental right,” Bailey said. “Martin Luther King considered it to be the most fundamental right, because it affects all of the others by our legislation, so I don’t think it’s unprincipled to be concerned about restrictions on voting. I think the real concern though isn’t ‘are the actual restrictions of the law severe?’ I think the real concern is ‘why are you wanting to pass it at all?’ And there’s little doubt that this is understood as a bill that will, if only modestly, shore up Republican power.”
Democrats, therefore, see this move as an attempt by Republicans to give themselves a lawful but unethical advantage in future elections, according to Bailey.
“In other words, there’s a conception that you’re gaming the system, and even if you’re gaming the system in a kind of modest way, that you’re doing it with respect to a fundamental right and in the name of voter integrity, when you yourself Republican created the fraud and are now using the basis of a fraudulent claim to restrict a liberty, that just strikes some people as terribly bad form,” Bailey said. “So it’s an overreaction, for sure, if you’re looking at the actual merits of the policy, but it’s not an overreaction if you’re looking at the motivation behind it.”
Though Bailey said that he is not overly concerned about the contents of the bill that are causing the most uproar, he did point out one section that he found more troubling.
“The Georgia State Election Board is now appointed by the governor, appointed by the legislature, not elected, and now they’re going to have more regulatory power over the county level,” Bailey said. “So the fear that people have, I don’t know whether it’s warranted, but the fear is that you’ll have this Georgia Republican appointed board, not subject to an elected official, overseeing county level results, of which those counties will often be democratic, and that strikes people as bad form. And of all the provisions in this voting bill, as a political scientist, that’s the one that I think causes me the most concern.”
This is not the first time a major league has relocated an event in response to state legislation, as the National Basketball Association (NBA) moved its 2017 All-Star game out of Charlotte, N. C., in the wake of a bill restricting the use of public bathrooms for transgender people. However, after the bill was partially repealed, the NBA did eventually host its All-Star game in Charlotte two years later, in 2019. Carroll said, given this precedent, the current situation could be considered a standoff.
“This is a stare-down contest of political willpower, and it’s at a critical moment when there are a lot of these stare-downs across the country with respect to various pieces of legislation, going back to transgender as well as immigration,” Carroll said. “It’s just a raft of these issues that are going to pit pretty strong entities against each other to see who blinks first. So the question is, will there be enough change fast enough for Major League Baseball, again back to integrity of brand, to feel that it can put back into Atlanta the All- Star game it ‘deserved’ in 2021?”
Howard said some of this will come down to whether MLB’s decision affects voters in Georgia, as they are the ones who can pressure their legislators into changing the law. And according to him, they are also the ones most affected by this decision.
“It’s obviously a controversial topic because there’s people, even people that are in Georgia who are against the voting law, who were not necessarily in favor of Major League Baseball moving the game,” Howard said. “Because that impacts the fans, it impacts the people that were going to be working the game, all the things around the peripheral of the stadium, all the food, the restaurants and the shops that might have been making more money during that time because of the people coming in on those extra days.”
While there will definitely be an economic impact, its significance remains to be seen. Frank Stephenson, chair of the accounting, economics and finance department, said Cobb County Travel and Tourism claimed losing the game would cost the area $100 million, but according to him that number is vastly overstated. Stephenson said that, according to research conducted on the impact of All-Star games, their economic impacts are nearly always overstated because interested parties look at gross revenue rather than net impact, therefore neglecting the money the area would generate regardless of the event.
Howard agreed and said the real number is likely not even half of what Cobb County claims.
“Usually, on economic impacts, those are numbers that are put out by people that are pro-whatever the thing is, whatever the event or the facility that’s being put out there is,” Howard said. “So we usually see those numbers are kind of inflated over what you might find in academic studies, because academics are not really biased, they’re just looking at the straight numbers. I would say the number probably falls somewhere between that zero and 40 million, just a guess without looking at any data.”
Stephenson backed up his claims by pointing to research he has undertaken concerning the effect of San Diego’s 2016 MLB All-Star Game on hotel occupancy in the area. What he found was that the net gain in hotel revenue was roughly $600,000, well short of the type of numbers to support Cobb County’s $100 million claim. While Atlanta may not be exactly similar to San Diego, partially due to normal hotel occupancy rates that are lower than its counterpart, Stephenson said he still believed Cobb County’s estimates to be overblown.
Even if the decision does not result in a significant economic impact, Carroll said it will still have an emotional one, not only for Braves fans who were hoping to attend the game, but because this All-Star game was supposed to celebrate the legacy of former Braves player Hank Aaron, who died earlier this year.
“One of the other aspects I’d like to bring into this is the terrible irony for our state, for Georgia, that this was the year Hank Aaron, his life and legacy, were going to be celebrated,” Carroll said. “He was a Milwaukee Brave and then an Atlanta Brave, broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record as an Atlanta Brave, was a true gentleman in every respect, and what people don’t know about him was that he was a change agent in forcing the integration of spring training. So at a time when we could be honoring Hank Aaron’s many contributions, including civil rights, we instead are robbed of an All-Star game because our state decided to address a problem that didn’t even exist.”
As with previous demonstrations in the sports world, MLB’s decision sparked a flurry of responses from those saying sports should be politics-free. But for Carroll, that very notion is an illusion.
“It’s been an illusion that sports are not political, we have been allowed the fantasy that we escape into sports and leave our politics behind,” Carroll said. “That has never been true, it’s been a political entity all along, so the big change is how politics, for better and for worse, has asserted itself in every aspect of American life. So we’re seeing leagues, the NBA led the way on this, leagues increasingly comfortable with leaving the fantasy behind and allowing its players primarily, but then also the leagues themselves, to engage in political questions in an overt way rather that the very covert ways that were present before.”
Howard had a similar response, saying that what people really want is the ability not to be subjected to politics they do not agree with.
“There’s obviously going to be people that feel that way, they don’t want to see sports and politics mix, but at the same time we sing the national anthem and wave flags, so there is politics in sport no matter what we do,” Howard said. “It’s just there, and it’s been there; it’s tradition in a lot of sports. So for people to say ‘keep politics out of sport,’ it’s just they want to keep the politics out of sport that they don’t agree with.”
Howard also said he does not expect the conversation surrounding this decision to quiet down anytime soon.
“It’s going to be something to talk about, and it’ll be talked about all through the summer and maybe beyond, because it’ll be talked about at least up until the All-Star game goes on in Colorado,” Howard said. “And then people will talk about what was the real impact, what was the impact of us not having it versus Colorado having it, as far as tax revenues, and was this a turning point for Major League baseball, how they approach social issues.”