Banks, credit unions set aside rivalry for absentee ballot program

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Banks and credit unions in Oklahoma are collaborating on a project to assist voters casting absentee ballots during this year’s elections.

The Oklahoma Credit Union Association — a division of the Cornerstone Credit Union League, which serves CUs in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas — is working alongside the Oklahoma Bankers Association and the Community Bankers of Oklahoma to offer absentee ballot services to voters across the state in advance of the state’s June 23 primary and the Nov. 3 general election.

Oklahomans may request an absentee ballot for any reason, but under ordinary circumstances those ballots must be notarized in order to be accepted. That law was suspended once the coronavirus began to spread, and the state legislature subsequently passed a law temporarily accepting a photo copy of a government-issued ID in lieu of notarization.

If the statewide emergency declaration is lifted more than 45 days before an election, the notarization law will take effect again.

Banks and credit unions participating in the program will help voters notarize their ballots or photocopy their IDs, depending on the requirements at the time.

The program, believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation, is notable partly because it represents a rare instance of banks and credit unions working together rather than fighting.

But it also comes at a time when much of the nation is split over the idea of voting by mail. In the wake of the coronavirus, some states have moved to make it easier to vote by mail, but President Trump has lashed out at those efforts, suggesting without evidence — and contrary to multiple studies — that voting by mail is rife with fraud.

“There is a political aspect of this, but I’m not going to concern myself with it, nor do I think we should get involved in that particular discussion,” said Nate Webb, executive director of OKCUA. “We’ve been asked to provide this service to the citizens of Oklahoma and it’s a pretty important service to allow people to participate in the system as easily as possible.”

Planning began in February, before the pandemic overtook the nation and the need for mail-in voting options became more pronounced. Webb said the league isn’t making predictions as to how many credit unions will participate, in part because many CUs are still focused on resuming normal operations as the coronavirus crisis wanes. The hope is that as the pandemic’s impact begins to lessen and election dates get closer more institutions will sign on.

“What is in almost every community in this state? A financial institution — and they all have notaries, so we’re the perfect fit,” said Adrian Beverage, executive vice president of government relations at the Oklahoma Bankers Association.

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Oklahoma had 60 federally insured credit unions at the end of 2019, with assets of about $15.6 billion, according to data from the National Credit Union Administration. There are roughly 190 banks headquartered in Oklahoma, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Banks that aren't headquartered in the state but still have a presence there are also eligible to take part, but none have yet signed on.

Beverage said that as of midday Monday about 100 locations across the state had agreed to participate. The Oklahoma State Election Board is handling promotion for the initiative, including providing signage for particpating institutions. Banks and credit unions may also produce their own promotional materials.

Despite the safety of absentee voting and low risk of fraud with mail-in ballots, “people understandably are getting caught up in this rhetoric,” said Geoff Bacino, a partner at Bacino & Associates. Banks and credit unions alike, he added, “are going to have to make decisions based on evidence. I understand people are Republicans or Democrats, but at some point you can’t have your own facts, and in this case the facts are pretty easy to read.”

Beyond the politics of the issue, however, at least one analyst said there might be larger issues that could hamper the program.

Even before the pandemic, “both parties were extremely suspicious and worried about ballot security in the November elections,” said John McKechnie, a consultant with Total Spectrum. In recent primaries in Oregon and Pennsylvania there were instances of registered voters receiving incorrect ballots or no ballots at all.

In light of that, McKechnie said, “We can only hope that the kinks get ironed out in the next five months."

‘We have a lot in common’

Tensions between banks and credit unions have been heightened over the past few years, with one battle potentially headed for the Supreme Court and another possibly headed for Congress. So with all that, why are the two sides able to get along for projects of this nature?

For one thing, said Webb, the absentee project is wholly unrelated to competition between the two industries.

“In terms of legislative priorities and things like that, we work hand-in-glove" with the Oklahoma Bankers Association "on 98% of the issues,” he said. “We have a lot in common at the state level. On the federal level obviously that’s a different story.”

Beverage declined to speculate on why banks and credit unions can get along at the state level but not in Washington, but suggested the current collaboration can at least in part be attributed to decades of good relations between the two sides.

“This is doing what’s right for Oklahoma and making it easier for people to perform one of their most basic, fundamental rights, which is voting,” he said. “Here at the state level, Nate and I will fight occasionally at the capitol but 95% of the time we’re pulling in the same direction. … What you see at the national level is not happening in Oklahoma.”

Bacino suggested many other states may share a similar dynamic with Oklahoma.

“What you see in Oklahoma is probably repeated in a number of states where there’s an understanding of how to get along,” he said. “On the national level, to be honest, the stakes are much higher.”

What’s most important in this case, he added, isn’t that the two sides are working together. “It’s more important that we’re working on the issue.”

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