If a credit union offers voter registration and the law doesn’t allow the registrars to hand out literature from a candidate who’s a good friend of credit unions, for example, why bother?
Some credit unions that participated in voter registration efforts leading up to this year’s election said that it may pay off in a number of ways. Indeed, a sampling showed that while most had different approaches, all confirmed it was worth the effort.
Registration was open to any U.S. citizen meeting state and local requirements. However, many of those walking up to the registration tables were credit union members. From that viewpoint, boosting the percentage of members who are registered voters provides groups such as CUNA and state leagues with additional political clout, experts say.
The $580 million DATCU in Denton, Texas, said it is based in one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. One day, President/CEO Dale Kimble walked into the office of Susan Passariello, vice president of marketing, and said he thought the credit union could help all the new people moving into the area by arranging voter registration in the branches.
“It’s really his brainchild, just because he is such a patriot.” Passariello explained.
Registration was available at eight of DATCU’s nine branches with the ninth housed at a local supermarket. “Register Here” tables were set up in two of the branches every Friday in September. Friday was chosen because it’s a busy day for the branches, Passariello said.
In each of the branches, an authorized registrar from the League of Women Voters or another organization was available.
Passariello, who is also a registrar, was in one of the branches on Fridays. Registrars were available for five hours in the larger branches and three hours at the smaller ones.
According to DATCU, 68 voters registered and about 60% were people new to the area who needed to change their address. Forty percent were registering for the first time.
“We found it to be very effective” Passariello stated. “I actually had no shortage of people volunteering to help. We sent out an e-blast to all our members so they would know the times and locations.”
DATCU posted signs in branches a couple weeks in advance of Election Day.
“I had members say, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this. It’s so convenient.’ They scheduled their credit union business around the time registration was taking place.”
The whole effort was relatively simple but the theme was certainly Patriotic, Passariello said. Red, white and blue signs were made up. Red, white and blue cupcakes were provided and balloons bearing the same colors fluttered in the breeze outside each branch.
An unexpected payoff came when election officials asked if one of the DATCU branches could be a polling site on Election Day. They provided security and the credit union arranged to serve snacks and water. Passariello said she was delighted because people often seek out a financial institution that is convenient to their home or work. It made it even more accessible that their precinct was also on site.
Many North Carolina credit unions, encouraged by the North Carolina Credit Union League, were active in voter registration. At the $103 million Latino Community Credit Union in Durham, N.C, registration was available for four or five days in all branches. Democracy North Carolina supplied the registrars, with the credit union simply providing space. Several other community groups, including El Cambio in Winston-Salem, El Pueblo and the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, supported the effort.
Erika Bell, vice president of strategy and services at Latino Community, noted that although the registration process is strictly nonpartisan, “we became a known entity in the community and are seen as supporting the community.”
Nonpartisan had special meaning for the $16.7 billion State Employees’ Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C. While it includes in its membership elected state officials such as legislators, it doesn’t contribute to PACs or endorse candidates, and remains neutral on political issues, according to the cooperative.
Even so, State Employees’ arranged with the State Board of Elections to help with voter registration as part of Citizens Awareness Month in September. Although registrars weren’t stationed in branches, registration forms were made available in all branches, which are located in every one of the state’s 100 counties.
Members could take a form, complete it and submit it to local election authorities, or they could ask the credit union to take care of submitting it. Leigh Brady, senior vice president of education services at State Employees,’ indicated most members wanted to submit it themselves.
So, what did the credit union gain?
“Credit unions were formed on cooperative principles, and one of those principles highlights democratic control,” Brady responded. “One member, one vote. I think this reinforces that cooperative principle.”
Although the election has ended, politicians are already assessing the implications for midterm contests in 2014. Brady has some advice for credit unions wanting to join in registration efforts at that time: start early, align with a particular month or week promoting voter registration, and team up with others.
Make sure it’s convenient and nonpartisan, added Patty Idol, president/CEO of the $82 million Mountain Credit Union in Asheville, N.C.
The voter registration drive at Mountain was held at all seven branches with each providing registration for at least three hours on a day that had the most traffic, according to Idol. First-time voters responded as well as others who needed to update their registration.
“It’s a good service,” Idol stated. “It’s important for our members to become politically active. When we need their help, we might get a little more response.”
When the North Carolina league called and asked if the $97 million Riegelwood Federal Credit Union would participate in voter registration, the response was an immediate yes, said Elaine Williams, marketing director at the cooperative in Riegelwood, N.C.
Registration was offered Oct. 9 at the Riegelwood office and Oct. 10 at the Leland branch. The league sent a representative to actually handle registration. In all, 14 voters registered.
“It was very simple,” Williams said. “[The league] took care of everything. It was very nonpartisan. It’s was more of a community outreach effort. We would like to get more involved in the school system with early registration for high school students.”