Credit unions that serve as polling sites are sitting out this election

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A handful of credit unions across the country have served as polling places for their communities during previous elections, but a variety of factors have reduced those numbers even further in advance of the Nov. 3 general election.

Between a global pandemic, increased voter participation and an atmosphere of extreme partisanship, some credit union leaders say they’ve dodged a bullet by opting not to host voters this year.

Altra Credit Union in Onalaska, Wis., used its flagship office as a polling place for about eight years but dropped that status in early 2019, explained Dan Schwaab, SVP of retail operations.

“We have a nice community at this location we were using for the polling; it was nice and spacious, but we internally had wanted to set up a disaster recovery room for our member contact center, and we’ve since done that,” he said, explaining that the area previously used for voting now has work stations for staff to transition to if the credit union’s operations center loses connectivity.

Schwaab said that while the credit union generally never saw any problems on Election Day in the past, “that was a couple of years ago; I don’t know if it would have changed or not, but it probably worked out for the best in the long run.”

Flasher Community Credit Union in Flasher, N.D., population 203, served as a drop-off site for ballots during the primaries this year, allowing voters to securely leave ballots in its overnight drop box as part of an experiment by the state.

“When we’d open up the night drop box, if [a ballot] was in there, [the state] had a little container we could keep secure and locked up, and put in our vault,” explained CEO Darla Schafer.

Flasher Community, like many credit unions, has limited lobby traffic this year due to the coronavirus, and with more voters than normal expected this year, Shaffer said the credit union did not have enough space to allow voters, members and staff to safely socially distance, so voting has been moved to a larger room at the back of a local café.

“I’m not complaining,” Schafer admitted.

The number of sites that serve as polling places varies by year, but well over 100,000 sites have been open for in-person voting in every election since 2010, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. However, those numbers ebb and flow due to a variety of factors.

About 20% of traditional sites, such as schools or community centers, sit out each election for reasons such as building maintenance or other scheduled events that make it harder to be open to voters, explained Mark Joslyn, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. And many businesses, including financial institutions, frequently shy away from serving as a polling place because they don’t want that to interrupt normal business.

Changes to polling locations can “absolutely” discourage people from voting, he added.

“Distance from the location itself has a lot to do with whether voters turnout,” said Joslyn. “If you’ve voted in one place for 20 years and suddenly it’s not there anymore and you have to go look [for the new site], it’s just another factor you don’t want as a voter. It reduces turnout.”

While there are laws about what can and cannot be used as a polling place — including requirements surrounding parking availability, lack of partisanship and more — Joslyn said elected officials at the state and local level, who are partisan themselves, have the power to decide the placement and number of polling sites in a community.

“This was once regulated under the Voting Rights Act passed in the 1960s,” he said. More recently, lawmakers loosened those regulations “and said there wasn’t much discrimination anymore, so there’s no oversight anymore about the number of locations nor the placement. So states now control it, and because it’s controlled by local political officials, they decide. It has become a political issue — especially this cycle.”

GreenState Credit Union in North Liberty, Iowa, first opened up for voting in 2016 but has stepped back this year due to concerns around COVID, said Chief Operating Officer Kathy Courtney. While only about 25% of the credit union’s total staff are working in offices, “for the safety of our staff and everything going on around us, we made the decision not to offer it this year.” Factors contributing to that decision included a shared entrance for staff and guests, as well as concerns about being able to allow appropriate space for social distancing.

Courtney said she’s unsure whether the credit union will automatically be on the list for the next election cycle or have to reapply.

So with the credit union movement’s community-focused ethos and the importance of voting as part of the cooperative business model, why don’t more CUs open their doors to voters on Election Day?

Courtney suggested it may simply be a combination of not having the space and also not wanting to distract from the institution’s primary purpose.

“It’s not their core, it’s not what they do,” she said. “They want to focus just more on, ‘We’re a credit union and that’s what they do,’ so they wouldn’t entertain something like this. For each credit union it’s probably a little bit different.”

“It’s nice advertising for credit unions that are able to do it,” she added. “You get more people in your doors and expose to them that this institution not only meets the financial needs for members in the community but really supports the community. That’s the way we see it.”

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