Justin Morgan woke up on Nov. 3 with a plan: To cast a ballot in the 2020 General Election at the United Center, and to do so in style.
“It's the house that Michael built. I have on Jordans right now,” Morgan chided after striding out of the South Atrium of the United Center, proudly brandishing an “I Voted” sticker. “It's just a very unique way to vote and it's necessary, given how necessary this election is.”
So necessary, in fact, that the 34-year-old philanthropist, South Side resident and father of four brought company. Flanking him through every step of the voting process were two of his daughters, Jayla, 14 years old, and Jalyssa, 10, both of whom he said he takes on adventures often.
Though Election Day is no Comic-Con — an annual trip he called a family favorite — its importance to Morgan, a voter of 16 years, is paramount.
“Part of the parenting process is educating [my children] on the voting process, why it's important to vote. Who are you voting for and why. You know, educating yourself on the issues,” he said. “So it's important for me to bring them to let them know what they have to look forward to in the coming years.
“Jayla, she's 14, she'll be voting in the next election. Jalyssa will be voting in two elections, she's 10. So I'd rather expose them now and then later they're familiar with it. It's only them in that voting booth and they have to know how to navigate it as well.
“I want to be the change I want to see in the world. So that’s why I vote, that’s why I encourage my daughters to vote and I encourage everyone else to vote actually.”
The home of the Bulls and Blackhawks provided a prime opportunity for such a lesson this year. On Tuesday, the United Center served as an “Election Day Super Site” for the first time in its history, offering same-day registration, a mail-in ballot dropoff box and the opportunity to cast a ballot to any Chicago resident, regardless of jurisdiction.
“We just thought it was a great idea to expand voting options for the voters of Chicago,” said Chicago Board of Elections Chairwoman Marisel Hernandez. “[The United Center] is an iconic symbol of Chicago. It represents so much — it represents celebrations, victories, unity. And that is what we're seeking to provide voters on election day.”
The arena’s offerings befitted its stature. A spokesperson for the Board of Elections relayed that the United Center is the state of Illinois’ largest Election Day polling place for this cycle.
“We're going to have 70 touch-screens available for use (casting ballots),” Hernandez said. “Everything is socially distanced. We have PPE available for every voter. And we have security available. It's going to be very, very easy.”
And so, for reasons sentimental and practical, prospective voters flocked to the arena throughout the day. Count Maureen Burns, 58, who traveled from Lincoln Park, in both columns.
“Why not come here? This is Michael Jordan's home. This is iconic,” said Burns, who cast a ballot at the UC after previously registering elsewhere. “And I felt like it was going to be really well-run compared to going to Lincoln [Park] High School or something. I just felt like this was going to be manned better.”
Burns added she was pleasantly surprised by the site’s efficiency, glad the city opened it as a city-wide registration hub and that she’d look to spread the word.
“I think that's going to hopefully attract people to get out here, so I'm going to put it on social media that I was out early and it was very easy to vote here,” she said. “Cause sometimes it's like, aw I gotta go vote, it's going to be painful. This was not painful.”
That mirrored the experience of a litany of morning voters, who began wrapping a line around the corner before gates opened at 6 a.m. Most who arrived in the dawn-to-noon window reported turnaround times of 30 minutes or less from first lining up outside to snapping a selfie with the famous Michael Jordan statue on the way out the door. Those depositing mail-in ballots were allowed to skirt lines, drop and go.
United Center workers spread out among the line to distribute check-in forms and remind expectant voters of social distancing and masking guidelines, allowing just one to 10 into the atrium at a time. From there, voters entered, scanned through a metal detector, checked in with a poll worker, proceeded to their ballot box and then out a side door in a “U” formation. Hand sanitizer was provided at each stop along the way. Safety signage and vote-themed promotional messaging adorned the lobby.
And though the day was balmy by November standards, reaching temperatures as high as the mid-60s around noon, community organizations from across the city — including but not limited to: I Am A Gentleman, World Central Kitchen, Election Defenders and the brothers of Phi Beta Sigma — showed out to support voters by handing out snacks and water bottles. For a time, dancers lined the sidewalk, blaring music and bouncing to the beat.
The United Center hasn’t seen game action since March 11, when the Blackhawks last played before the COVID-19 pandemic halted their and the Bulls’ seasons. Since then, the arena has transformed into a storage facility for the Greater Chicago Food Depository and a medical supply collection center.
On Election Day, it gave back to the community once more — and while keeping things lively.
"Having the United Center open for people to vote is essential because a lot of people in the smaller areas will have to wait in line a long time, and this kind of alleviates that," Morgan said. "We got in and got out. Which is important, a lot of people are easily discouraged from voting... I think it was great and it was very helpful. And because of that a lot more people will have the chance to vote that wouldn't necessarily vote."
And as a parting message:
“My advice is vote, vote, vote,” Morgan said. “It only takes a few minutes, we’re at the United Center, it’s not that long of a wait, we got snacks out here, we got everything out here. We got the news, we got music… We have everything we need to make it an easy experience to vote. Do your due diligence, it’s your right. People died for my right to vote. I will vote until I die.”