While Labor Day has traditionally kicked off the general election campaign season, voter engagement has been on the minds of many electric cooperatives for some time now.
Whether it’s involvement in National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 25, spreading awareness of local and state races with Co-ops Vote resources, or sponsoring candidate meet and greets, co-ops are trying to ensure a strong turnout of rural voters on Election Day.
“I’ve spent the last 12 months being consistently active in promoting voting among members in our service territory. I’m so excited that we can promote voting … without promoting policy,” said Leslie Kraich, community and member relations coordinator at Tri-County Electric Cooperative in Hooker, Oklahoma.
More co-ops than ever are involved in grassroots voter activity, said Laura Vogel, NRECA’s senior adviser for political affairs. “Rural communities are recognizing that voting is the easiest way to start a relationship with an elected official and to take a stand on issues unique to them.”
In Co-ops Vote, NRECA’s nonpartisan political engagement effort, 93 co-ops have achieved “five-star” status, designating their involvement in five or more grassroots activities. In 2016, the program’s first year, 115 co-ops attained the designation.
“It’s safe to say that over 750 co-ops have done something related to Co-ops Vote,” said Vogel.
Here’s a glimpse at the ways co-ops are getting involved leading up to the Nov. 6 midterm elections:
A Community Institution
North Dakota is the only state without voter registration, so co-ops there use Co-ops Vote resources as Election Day reminders. Candidate meet-and-greets, such as Verendrye Electric Co-op’s legislative suppers, allow voters to discuss rural and co-op issues with an array of candidates and elected officials. Steady legwork is key, said Tom Rafferty, member services manager at the Velva, North Dakota, co-op. More than two decades old, the suppers “have become a signature event to the point where the ones in office expect to be invited.”
Voter Registration: More Than One Day
Tri-County Electric Co-op and a dozen other co-ops have signed up to support National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 25. The event has inspired Kraich to turn the co-op’s lobby into a voter registration center with help from a county election official. For Cotton Electric Cooperative’s Karen Kaley, the cause of voter registration has been a monthly calling. For months, the marketing and communications director at the Walters, Oklahoma, co-op has posted registration deadlines online and on the reverse side of bill stuffers.
Cutting Through the Clutter
These days, encouraging people to vote is a challenge, said Arizona G&T Cooperatives’ Geoff Oldfather. “People are discouraged by the political process and it’s hard for them to filter through the white noise and get to the ballot box. Our job is to cut through the clutter. If we feel that voting is important, we need to convey that to members.”
Co-ops Vote has been “a fantastic resource,” said Oldfather, who crisscrossed the state visiting the G&T’s member co-ops. He’s adapting National Voter Registration Day to consist of a full weekend instead of one day with support from a local economic development agency.
Key Relationships With Legislators
For the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives’ Nick Reitz, one of the big takeaways from NRECA’s Legislative Conference this year was the importance of establishing relationships with elected officials in their home districts. AIEC and member co-ops have done just that. Together, they have been laying the groundwork for such opportunities, and those efforts have paid off—just in time for the midterm elections.
Spoon River Electric Cooperative in Canton was the latest stop for “Cheri on Shift,” a job-shadow program by Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos. Donning a hard hat and harness, she ascended in a bucket with a lineworker to install an LED bulb in a subdivision security light. Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Darin LaHood met employees and directors at McDonough Power Cooperative in Macomb.
Little Things Add Up
Two states. One statewide association. Together they sent a unified message to elected officials that co-ops are serious about voting. Earlier this year, members of the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association—which includes Sussex REC, the lone co-op in New Jersey—achieved five-star status in the Co-ops Vote program. Co-ops ran articles in the statewide magazine’s local pages, placed signs in co-op lobbies, ran radio spots and sponsored meet and greets between elected officials and candidates and co-op members or employees.
“It’s a big achievement because no matter how big or small your co-op is, we’re strengthening the co-op program with each member that steps out their door to go vote,” said Stephanie Okuniewski, member services and special projects coordinator.
Check out the Co-ops Vote website for more information, and listen to our Along Those Lines podcast episode on the importance of the rural vote:
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.