Stefan Frei - Seattle Sounders - Art
Mike Fiechtner/Seattle Sounders FC

2020 election: MLS players and clubs making unprecedented effort to boost participation in November

Earlier this month, MLS, Black Players for Change and the MLSPA announced that they had launched MLS Unites to Vote, a non-partisan initiative to encourage voter registration and participation among MLS players, staff and fans. It’s a program that intends to build on the momentum of a year that’s seen a greater collective push for social justice and activism by athletes than maybe any other in history.

So far, 11 MLS Clubs have launched their own corresponding initiatives to encourage voter participation in the Nov. 3 election, while players around the league have continued to use their platform to drive fans to polls. The initiative allows them to continue educating potential voters in their fan base while being able to refer those fans to resources offered by their club.

It's a responsibility that a number of players across the league have also taken within their own locker rooms. Jordan Harvey, a 13-year MLS veteran, has been encouraging and helping the American players on LAFC’s roster get registered to vote. 

“Whether it’s walking them through it online, whether it's registering, or making sure that they're registered for a mail-in ballot, every single American on our roster is registered and I’m definitely proud of that,” Harvey told MLSsoccer.com in a recent interview. “Whether it's by mail or going to the polls or they're going to Banc of California Stadium everyone's going to vote, so that's awesome. It's a unique time. And so it's important that everybody kind of steps up in their own way.” 

As a club, LAFC has stepped up by offering a space to vote. Last month, the 2019 Supporters' Shield winners announced that they had joined a team-led, non-partisan voter registration coalition called Rally the Vote. Along with 20 other teams spanning six professional sports leagues, they pledged to increase voter registration and increase the number of registered voters who actually vote. Around one hundred million registered voters, close to 43 percent of those eligible, didn’t vote in 2016. 

A few hours later, the club made it clear that they weren’t just pledging for symbolism’s sake. They were putting action behind the words. Banc of California Stadium will be available to all registered voters of Los Angeles County for not only in-person voting, but as a place to drop off and process mail-in ballots. The details are still being worked out as to exactly how in-person voting will be carried out, but having Banc of California Stadium available fills a crucial need for the 2020 voters of LA County. 

Other clubs have followed suit. CenturyLink Field in Seattle will allow residents to register vote, cast their ballot and drop off mail-in ballots, Minnesota United's Allianz Field home in St. Paul will allow residents to drop off ballots and the Houston Dynamo announced on Tuesday that BBVA Stadium will act as a vote center for Harris County on election day.

In the midst of a pandemic, the safety of those casting votes is hugely important. The state-of-the-art stadiums have large concourses and potential voting areas that will allow social distancing protocols to be in place as people vote. It also provides a central and recognizable location for those who may be unsure of where to vote. It’s a major resource, and players like Harvey will be encouraging fans to take advantage of it. 

“Hopefully, it's something that interests fans and we'll get more people coming there and more people coming out to vote just because it's Banc of California Stadium and fans are excited about that," he said. "LAFC has always been quoted as saying they wanted to be a force for good. And this is just another way that they're doing that within the LA community."

Harvey is one of many MLS players actively using their platform to increase voter participation. In the run up to this year’s election players are regularly speaking out on social media, in press conferences and using any opportunity to spread the message. 

Watch: Mark McKenzie implores youth to vote in wake of Breonna Taylor case

In Philadelphia, Ray Gaddis and Warren Creavalle have been two of the most outspoken players on what may be the league’s most outspoken team. Both have spoken out often in support of racial justice causes and are members of Black Players for Change, a coalition dedicated to amplifying Black voices and increasing inclusion across MLS. They each see voting as an aspect of influencing change, and Gaddis says that if you’re not exercising your right to vote, you’re missing out. At least that’s how he tries to make it feel in the Union locker room.

“One thing I try to do with the players and all of those who are eligible to vote in our organization is simply FOMO. It’s that fear of missing out and wanting them to be engaged and a part of something,” Gaddis said. “It’s about letting them know that this is something that's serious and real. Not peer pressuring them, but allowing them to know that this is very serious in a way, but also having conversations.”

The conversations Gaddis is encouraging, not only with teammates but with anyone in his orbit, center around the vitality of voting. That goes especially for younger voters, who consistently fail to turn out at the rate as older voters.

“I think that they don't really realize right now what the decision to get their friends and their peers engaged in voting is going to have on the outlook of their future. They may not think about taxes. They may not think about their housing in districts or other laws right now. So it's important to educate them and for them to educate themselves,” Gaddis said.

As a team, the Union are clearly committed to encouraging activism and engagement. As an organization, the club is one of 11 teams currently involved with MLS Unites to Vote. They’ll be using their social platforms and other mediums to educate fans and provide voter resources for those in the Philadelphia area. That engagement by clubs at the local level is something Creavalle sees as an important extra step toward having as many people as possible getting their voice heard.

“I think if everybody tends to that mindset of ‘OK, my vote does matter,’ you actually get to hear the collective voice of the nation,” Creavalle said. “Just in those extra steps test to help a community’s voice be heard, I think it's just huge. The individual clubs and their respective markets I think are really important at this time.” 

For Seattle’s Stefan Frei, having his voice be heard in this election will take on an added importance. Frei officially became an American citizen in June of 2017. This November, he’ll vote in a presidential election for the first time. 

He’s regularly been vocal on social media about registering to vote whether it’s your first time or your 10th. And he hopes neither experience level is taking that right for granted. 

“We're living in a democracy. It's a privilege to vote. And the basics of democracy is a form of government that reflects or should reflect the will of the people, right? So what we're doing is the way to get across what is the will of the people,” Frei said. “Voting should be made as easy and as accessible as possible for every citizen and that would really ensure that the will of the people come through and we run this country the way that the people want it to be run.”

As we enter the home stretch of this election cycle, you’ll see players, clubs and the league pushing for voter participation more and more. In a tumultuous year, it feels more important than ever to exercise your right to have your voice heard. It’s not only a presidential election this November, but a chance for voters to impact their local community in a major way by casting votes for local leadership positions. At the very least, the hope is that you’ll participate and listen.

“I want on a basic level that people go out and register for one, because I think once they register, maybe then they'll pay a little bit more attention to what's going on. Maybe they'll research a little and they’ll educate themselves and listen to other opinions,” Frei said. “That's truly, what's going to get us to some solutions that we’re in dire need of in this country.” 

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MLS Unites to VOTE

Join Major League Soccer, Black Players for Change, and the MLS Players Association in participating in the November 3 general election. In-person early voting has started in 45 states. Make a plan to vote.