PHOENIX – Nearly eight months ago, 17,125 hockey fans filled the seats of Gila River Arena to watch the Arizona Coyotes in their final home game of the season before a league-wide shutdown due to COVID-19 concerns.
On Wednesday, the Coyotes and the community returned to Gila River Arena not to watch a hockey game, but to do their civic duty.
“We’d love to have them be here to enjoy a game and cheer on our Coyotes on the ice, but today is as equally as important with early voting,” Coyotes President and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said.
The Arizona Coyotes and the City of Glendale announced their partnership with the Maricopa County Elections Department on Sept. 4 to provide Gila River Arena as a voting center. Voters began casting and dropping off their ballots at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Nearly 100 people voted in the first two hours.
More than 69 million Americans have turned in their mail-in or in-person ballots for the Nov. 3 presidential election, according to U.S. Elections Project data released Tuesday afternoon.
As of Wednesday morning, Maricopa County had received 1.126 million early ballots, according to the Maricopa County Elections Department. The county has already surpassed the early voting total from the 2016 General Election.
“Maricopa voters like to vote early and this election has been no exception,” Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said in a statement. “We are seeing a record number of early ballots returned.”
Gila River provided free parking on the east side of the arena. Voters were able to line up outside near the box office, six feet apart while wearing masks. Voters said the access to Gila River arena as a voting center brought forth an easier option to vote and turn in their ballots.
“I am very appreciative that they did this,” said Brian Slapinsky, 40, from Laveen. “I didn’t know too much about where I could go to vote, so when the Coyotes announced they were going to do it here, I was very pleased because I knew where I could go.”
Ruthee Goldkorn, 65, moved from Southern California to Peoria four months ago and was first in line to cast her ballot.
“Coming here was predicated on the fact that I saw it in the paper,” Goldkorn said. “I could easily find directions to vote here.”
Don Heimbaugh, 65, from Glendale, helped construct Gila River Arena as the building electrician and has been a Coyotes fan since 2003.
“I was glad to see it was here and close to home. I helped open up this building, so it’s nice to see it again,” Heimbaugh said. “I was planning on going here. I saw it online and made it really easy for me.”
Voters said they felt safe going through the voting process inside the arena concourse with safety protocols in place, including social distancing and accessible hand sanitizer stands.
“They did a great job,” Slapinsky said. “Everyone was socially distant, standing six feet apart. Even when you’re in the voting booth, you don’t feel like people are on top of you.”
“I had no issues. None at all,” Heimbaugh added. “They took the appropriate safety precautions to keep everyone safe.”
Gutierrez joined the voters and dropped his ballot off at the arena Wednesday morning.
“It means a lot to me personally that we’re doing this in our home,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to use this great asset, to open up the doors, and to make the process easier in light of the pandemic.”
Gila River Arena will be open to the public as a voting center and early ballot drop-off location every day except Sunday, through Election Day. Voting hours on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Hours on Monday are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and hours on Election Day will be 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
State Farm Stadium has opened for voters to drop off their ballots. The Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury have offered to provide Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum as a drop-off location as well.
With the available access to Valley sporting venues, some voters feel a greater sense of dedication to turn in their ballots in part thanks to sports organizations across the nation lending a helping hand.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this before,” Slapinsky said. “I’m really glad they stepped up and did this.”
“Going into a sporting venue adds an extra layer of commitment in wanting to go vote and thanking your team,” Goldkorn said. “This was fun. This is democracy in action.”
For a full list of drop-off locations and times in Maricopa County, click here.