Barack Obama’s most recent tweet congratulates President-elect Joe Biden and Vice president-elect Kamala Harris for their victory in the 2020 election.
The one before that? A retweet of Chiney Ogwumike from Election Day, when the WNBA player and ESPN radio host — along with sisters Nneka, her teammate on the Los Angeles Sparks, and Olivia — worked as an election clerk in her hometown of Houston.
“Thank you Chiney, Nneka, and all of the athletes who are using their platforms and helping people vote in this election,” the 44th president tweeted on Nov. 3.
Chiney Ogwumike merely wanted to play a small role in a process she admires. Instead, her recognition went viral.
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Thank you Chiney, Nneka, and all of the athletes who are using their platforms and helping people vote in this election. https://t.co/LQbtP53U1C
“This is just a gut instinct for me, to go home and try to help,” Ogwumike told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday, a week after Election Day. “For it to be recognized by President Barack Obama, that was so crazy.”
Truth is, Ogwumike missed the initial flood of texts, direct messages and mentions in the aftermath of Obama pressing send. Running on four hours of sleep, it’d been a frenetic 24 hours for the 28-year-old, the final stretch in a journey that began over the summer.
Chiney Ogwumike (left) and her sister, Nneka, after the Los Angeles Sparks players served as poll workers on Election Day. (Photo: Courtesy of Chiney Ogwumike)
Organizers of More Than A Vote – the LeBron James-led group of athletes and celebrities aimed at combatting voter suppression while mobilizing voters – identified Ogwumike as someone who needed to be brought in at the ground level.
More Than A Vote executive director Addisu Demissie told USA TODAY Sports she is a "founding member to say the least, and not just sort of putting her name of paper, but actually doing stuff for the whole six months."
Ogwumike narrated advertisements for the organization. She didn't stop there.
“I think she’s the embodiment of ‘Don’t just talk about it, be about it,’” Demissie said.
Ogwumike’s activism is the next natural step of a mass athlete movement that started several years ago, and continued when leaders across all sports, from James to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes — who paid for half of the costs to utilize Arrowhead Stadium as a polling place — stepped up.
“(Voting) is the front door to change," Demissie said. "It’s not the whole thing. We’re walking through the front door with what we did this year, but there’s more to come.”
Through her involvement with More Than A Vote and during surrogate media appearances on CNN and MSNBC, Ogwumike vocalized the need for the younger generation to take up the mantle from the elderly, who usually serve as the bulk of poll workers, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t I just do this?’” Ogwumike recalled. “If I’m asking people to do it and (I’m) using my voice in this way, why don’t I actually try and become a poll worker myself? I’m young, I’m capable.”
A native of Cypress, Texas, Ogwumike and her sisters decided to work at the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets and one of the several arenas and stadiums opened across the country in an effort to boost turnout and provide a space for socially-distanced, in-person voting. The voting dropbox controversy in Harris County fueled Ogwumike’s desire to serve her hometown.
“No matter what side of the (political) spectrum you’re on, voting matters,” she said. “If I could help, in this time of pandemic, to help people vote easier, be someone who could help in that process, that is the center of what we should be moving towards.”
So after her ESPN afternoon radio show with Mike Golic Jr. last Monday, Ogwumike hopped on a flight that got her into Houston around midnight. A 5 a.m. wakeup call followed, and the three Ogwumike sisters arrived at the Toyota Center ready to work by 6.
As an election worker, Ogwumike commanded one of approximately 50 “drive-thru” voting stations in the arena’s parking lot, she said. Among her duties: checking driver’s licenses, confirming residencies, applying PPE when appropriate and handing voters the mobile voting machines. The Stanford-educated Ogwumike speaks proficient Spanish and helped voters in her second language. A proud family moment occurred when Olivia, an MBA student at Rice, administered Ogwumike’s vote while Nneka, president of the WNBA Players’ Association, looked on.
The voters who stood out most to Chiney included the person who asked “I’m DACA, I can vote, right?” and the Black woman who brought her two children to the polls — a son voting for the first time and an inquisitive younger daughter who beamed when handed an “I Voted” sticker.
Chiney assisted Biden supporters and Donald Trump supporters. She watched the Democratic election official and Republican official work in unison throughout the day.
“They’re cool. They’re friends. They coexist,” Ogwumike said. “That’s the Houston that I know, that’s the Harris County that I know. We can not agree on everything but still understand the value in what we’re doing.
“That spirit is something that I’m proud of. Texas is a very proud state. If we can keep engaging with each other that way, things can only get better.”
By the time their shift ended at 3 p.m., the Ogwumike clan’s smiles spanned their faces, although they’re not visible behind the masks Chiney and Nneka wore in the photo Obama eventually shared.
Ogwumike had congregated with relatives and her parents at an uncle’s house for an election night gathering when her phone began buzzing more than normal.
“I thought, ‘This has to be a spam account,’” she said of Obama’s tweet. “And it wasn’t. The funny thing was, I hadn’t even checked my texts that day.”
Ogwumike didn’t wake up on Election Day seeking that level of attention. She is someone who prides herself on grinding in the darkness. It’s exemplary of the consistent commitment demonstrated by her and many other WNBA players who have led the way for athletes’ activism.
“This is not something that we are conditioned to think about, so we have to go out of our way to educate ourselves why this (voting) matters,” Ogwumike said. “Once you understand that, you want everyone to experience that.”
Admitting the borderline corniness of the simile, Ogwumike compared her Election Day journey to holding the follow-through on a jump shot.
“We don’t have to wait to help create change to help one another, to engage,” she said. “We all can make a difference in our own ways.
“Having a voice matters. Representation matters. It’s not something that, you stop there. What are you going to do with it?”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
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