Voters at the United Center relish its 1st time as a polling site — and leave with a selfie in front of the Michael Jordan statue after casting their ballots

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune

Decked out in a red Chicago Bulls cap and a No. 23 black hoodie, Devon Dobbs eagerly cast his vote Tuesday at the United Center.

Like hundreds of others, he showed up for democracy and stayed for the selfie.

Hopeful his vote for Democrat Joe Biden would help end divisive politics under President Donald Trump, Dobbs relished the idea of playing a part in American politics in the famed home of the Bulls and Blackhawks.

“That was another thing that drew me out here,” he said. “You get to take a picture with the Michael Jordan statue afterward. That’s real memorabilia.”

For the first time in its 26-year history, the United Center was used an Election Day voting super site where Chicagoans could register to vote, drop off mail-in ballots or vote in person. It was one of 23 NBA arenas converted into polling sites for the election.

During the NBA playoffs, players urged citizens to vote and pushed for facilities to be utilized to address systemic racism by increasing voter turnout.

Arenas mostly have been shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic and the NBA, NHL and WNBA playoffs took place in off-site “bubbles.” The United Center in March was used as a storage center for COVID-19 relief supplies.

“The United Center has long served as a gathering place for our city, and we are proud that it will be used this year as a voting location for the first time in its history,” Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said in a joint statement. “Together, the Blackhawks, Bulls and United Center are happy to play our part and offer our arena to further civic engagement in our communities and expand voting opportunities for Chicago residents.”

Voters waited about 20 minutes outside the arena’s south atrium entrance. Free snacks were handed out in bags and a food truck was stationed near the line. Parking was free and COVID-19 safety protocols were implemented.

Some danced to house music as they waited.

After they cast their ballots, many voters had one more important task to complete: Get a selfie with the 12-foot bronze Jordan statue that was adorned with a mask on Tuesday.

“It’s like the new ‘I Voted’ sticker,” said Joseph Rocha, 24.

Joseph Balkcom, 33, waited an hour in line at a polling site near his Humboldt Park home. He talked to a friend who lived near the United Center who told him to give it a try.

A “life-long” Bulls fans, Balkcom enjoyed the unique voting experience.

“The arena is closed,” he said. “I might never see the Bulls again. I had to come one more time and at least see it. I’m a really big Bulls fan. It was delightful. I took my time and voted.”

Amaka Akuba, 23, heard about NBA arenas being used as voting sites during the playoffs and wanted to cast her first-ever ballot there.

She was joined Tuesday by her sister Ugo Akuba, 25. They voted for Biden and felt energized voting in a unique location.

“It’s the United Center and very exciting and you get the selfie,” Ugo Akuba said. “There’s good energy. Voting is important for me. I know there are millions of Americans who can’t vote. I feel like I can be a voice for them.”

Amaka added, “You see the banner saying, ‘I voted,’ and it’s a nice little backdrop.”

Alecia Garbs, 40, brought her 6-year-old daughter London with her to vote at the United Center because she figured two-hour lines at her regular polling site would be too long for a young child to wait patiently.

The United Center voting experience, Garbs said, “was the smoothest I’ve ever seen.” And as an NBA fan, voter PSAs from players inspired her.

“During playoff games, with everything going on in the country right now, they canceled a couple games and were really outspoken about equality and equal rights,” she said. “I thought it was a great cause. So maybe we should come here.”

London was wowed when she entered the arena — despite no game inside.

“She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is where the Bulls play,’ ” Garbs said.

Wrigley Field and Guarantee Rate Field had drop-boxes for voters to deliver their ballots. The word “VOTE” lit up the Wrigley marquee.

Austin Rodger, 23, dropped off his mail-in ballot for Trump a few days ago at Wrigley. He accompanied his girlfriend Michelina Ban, 22, on Tuesday, as she dropped off her ballot for Biden.

They said they don’t let politics cause relationship issues. And they enjoyed voting at Wrigley Field on a sunny autumn day.

“We didn’t get the usual summer fun we get,” Rodger said, referring to the absence of fans at Cubs games during the pandemic.

At the United Center, Bulls fan Rocha said no matter where he needed to go, he was determined to vote.

“It’s just important,” he said. “No matter what’s going on in the country. It’s important to what makes our democracy our democracy.”

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