When South Carolina started to lift its COVID-19 restrictions in late spring, Yajaira Bess of
Berkeley Electric Cooperative was already planning for National Voter Registration Day this month.
On Sept. 22, Berkeley’s four district offices will welcome face-mask-clad, socially distanced members to visit
Co-ops Vote booths in their lobbies or just outside their front doors. Anyone 18 or older can stop and register to vote in the Nov. 3 election for president, Congress, and state and local representatives.
“The pandemic isn’t going to go away anytime soon, so we just have to adapt,” says Bess, public relations and grassroots specialist at the Moncks Corner-based co-op. “Most of the time in rural communities, we feel like we are left out. We need to stand up and speak so our voice can be heard. The pandemic is not going to slow us down.”
That attitude has inspired co-ops throughout the country to revive voter registration events for this fall, after coronavirus restrictions forced the cancellation of events in advance of spring and summer primary elections.
At NRECA, the grassroots advocacy team has helped co-ops navigate a rapidly changing landscape that includes the stepped-up use of mail-in ballots, alternative polling locations, and online registration drives.
“We don’t know for sure what things will be like for National Voter Registration Day or the November election,” Laura Vogel, NRECA’s senior associate for grassroots advocacy, said in June. “The best we can do is just make sure we are educated enough to be the conduit to share information with co-ops around the country, so they can share it with their consumer-members.”
Amanda Wolfe, NRECA senior associate for grassroots advocacy, says the response so far has reinforced her co-op credo: “Never underestimate co-op creativity.”
Middle Georgia EMC’s work underscores Wolfe’s point. The co-op had initially planned to send representatives into local schools to talk to students from elementary school through high school about the importance of voting. When the pandemic closed classrooms, the co-op turned to online learning to spread its message.
The Vienna-based co-op launched an online “Plug Into Summer Reading” video on June 9 that features its Youth Leadership Council delegate, Sydney Lawson, reading One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote by Bonnie Worth.
The video, which the co-op posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, reached nearly 3,000 people in its first 10 days, says Sylandi Brown, a former Youth Tour delegate who recently joined Middle Georgia EMC as a marketing and communications specialist. She says the project was inspired by read-aloud videos hosted by local teachers and community groups.
“It’s never too early to start educating kids about the election process,” Brown says. “We want to build our future engaged citizens.”
Jasper County Rural Electric Membership Corp. has also stepped up its social media campaign after having to scrap plans for spring events.
“Our primary message is the value of the rural vote,” says Stephanie Johnson, marketing and members services representative at the Rensselaer-based co-op. “My mantra is that rural votes equal rural voices.”
The co-op is also urging its members to participate in the U.S. Census so rural communities get their fair share of federal resources. The Census Bureau has been gathering information mostly online this year as social-distancing rules forced census takers to stop going door to door.
“We’ve been rolling census participation into our Rural Voices campaign,” Johnson says. “Rural areas are falling behind, so we need our members to be counted.”
Voting is especially urgent during the pandemic, says Leann Paradise, a senior associate for grassroots advocacy at NRECA.
“Now more than ever, getting out and voting and having their voice heard is one way for co-op members to feel like they still have some control over what happens in their country and their communities.”