woman talking with 2 men

One of the foundational principles for electric and telco cooperatives (and Pioneer, since we’re a communications co-op) is democratic member control. The ability of co-op members to use their voice to elect their peers and help set utility policies is a crucial step in serving our communities.

How can we help members understand the importance of their vote and encourage everyone to cast a ballot?

Let’s start with what experience and research tell us about why members may or may not be voting. Then I’ll offer an idea for how to overcome them.

  1. Time
  2. Confusion
  3. Forgetfulness
  4. Member Mindset
  5. Apathy

1. Make Voting Easy

The world is a busy place with lots of competing priorities. If we want members to vote, we have to do our best to make it fit into their schedules. But when it comes down to it, they have to make it fit into their schedules.

Prior to the pandemic destroying the ability to hold in-person voting, and either by pure genius or perhaps coincidence, Pioneer was working on a way to make voting more accessible and less time-consuming, a way that we could make voting quickly fit into members’ schedules. It worked!

A 2020 online voting portal case study with Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative in Kearney, Missouri, found voting participation jumped by 184%, higher than the previously recorded 15 years of local elections. The multipronged approach that offered both traditional paper ballots as well as our fully encrypted and completely customizable online voting portal was an enormous success.

The world is increasingly digital-dependent. I think the majority of utility folks would be surprised to see just how many people, of all age groups, feel confident and comfortable voting digitally. Much like electricity, our members often follow the path of least resistance.

2. Aim for Simplicity

Our members appreciate K.I.S.S. (no, not the band). I am referencing the acronym that the U.S. Navy used in 1960 to remind sailors to “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” I have also heard it can stand for “Keep It Super Simple” or “Keep It Simple and Straightforward.”

No matter how you read it, the acronym reminds us that in order to fully engage members, communications about elections and ballots need to be simple and easy to understand.

Elections can be overwhelming for folks. The slightest difficulty, even purchasing a stamp, can derail a member from casting a ballot. Take a moment to revisit and reevaluate your elections communications and processes to see if you can better assist your members on their path to participating.

At Wiregrass Electric Cooperative in Hartford, Alabama, the co-op used a multimonth advertising campaign to explain a bylaws vote. The campaign focused on three key results of the bylaws change: efficiency, stability, and flexibility.

wiregrass bylaw campaign magazine sample pages

To make sure the voting process was easy, Wiregrass partnered withPioneer’s team at WordSouth to create a series of ads and a social media video explaining how to vote.

wiregrass sample pages explaining how to vote

Getting more members to vote doesn’t have to mean we need to spend more on free things to get them to jump through all the hoops.

Spend time consolidating the number of hoops, and make the remaining hoops relevant.

3. Deliver Gentle Reminders

Henri Barbusse said, “People are machines of forgetfulness.” Some members simply forget to vote.

We have to meet our members where they are if we want to have any chance of keeping our election top of mind. When was the last time you did a survey to verify how and where your members want you to communicate with them? From the many surveys I have seen, a few communication channels always rise to the top.

Often at the top is your magazine, a staple in the homes of many of our members. In our 2018 readership survey, more than 88% of Ruralite readers report they are “highly engaged” with the magazine. Use your magazine to deliver gentle voting reminders. You don’t have to sacrifice article space; add a belly band, cover wrap, or a removable sticker on the cover to add to a calendar. If you give members custom calendars, why not include a reminder to vote on annual meeting month?

Printed reminders may not be enough. Create digital reminders, too, on your website and social media channels. Want to make sure your reminders reach members? Consider digital advertising. (We’ve written about it on our How to Connect with Consumers Online blog.) These targeted messages are extremely effective and can be seen as your members surf the web in their downtime (i.e. the time they were thinking of voting but forgot).

4. Build the Member Mindset

Some members may not vote because they do not understand the value of their input.

Baseball legend Yogi Berra humorously said, “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.” Industrywide satisfaction surveys show that the mindset of consumers is important, often driving how they interact with us.

“Year after year, results show satisfaction and engagement scores are much higher among respondents expressing some degree of ‘member’ or ‘owner’ identity,” cites NRECA in coverage of the 2020 Touchstone Energy Cooperative Difference Survey.

The more we can help members identify as such, the more likely they are to engage with the utility and participate in elections. Building a member mindset can start small.

  • Poudre Valley REA lobby mirrorMark prime parking spaces at the front of your utility as member parking.
  • Add a mirror to your lobby. We love this example (pictured on the right) from Poudre Valley REA, Colorado.
  • Mail real, cashable capital credits checks each year instead of listing the credit on a monthly bill.
  • Use programs such as Touchstone Energy’s Co-op Connections Program to show the financial benefits of membership.

5. Fight Apathy with Meaning

The enemy of engagement is apathy, and co-op elections are no different. However, the reason members are aloof often goes deeper than the “my vote doesn’t matter” mantra and is more closely tied to our member mindset discussion. Members do not need education on the meaning of membership (though that is important). They need to experience what it means to be a member.

Members feel engaged, excited, and empowered when co-ops are engaging, exciting, and empowering. 

That feels like a very Gandhi-like thing to say. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Or perhaps it feels like a big “Field of Dreams” task. “Build it and they will come.” But while perhaps it means change for your cooperative, it doesn’t have to be a risky change. Surveying membership or hosting focus groups can tell you a great deal about how best to energize your membership.

I wholeheartedly believe that the key to the future success of cooperatives, and their elections, will be based on the strength of their relationship with their members.

What secrets to voting success have you discovered?