Election 2020 a balancing act for credit unions

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With early voting already happening in many states and millions more Americans headed to the polls in less than four weeks, credit unions and industry groups across the country are taking part in an ambitious get-out-the-vote effort. That includes helping get members and staff registered to vote, discussing candidates the industry supports, giving staff time off to go to the polls and more.

But such a push can force financial institutions to walk a fine line to avoid bringing today's volatile political atmosphere into the workplace.

“There are members on both sides of the political aisle and, in our divided nation, you're bound to alienate half of your credit union by picking sides,” said John Hecht, managing director at Artisan Advisors.

Most credit unions' efforts right now are focused on voter engagement rather than pushing a particular candidate. Hecht advised credit unions to remain neutral on any party endorsements while emphasizing the importance of expressing an employee's personal and constitutional right to vote.

Still, the industry as a whole believes advancing voter involvement is a worthy cause.

The Credit Union National Association earlier this year launched its Credit Unions Vote initiative, a nonpartisan effort aimed at urging credit union members to participate in the general election. Some institutions even have voter registrars on staff in order to help get staff and members registered.

But with employees often harboring strong feelings about one political candidate or another, it can be a slippery slope for credit union management to have staff engaged in trumpeting voter registration and turnout but at the same time ask them to keep politics out of the office.

“It is a very personal thing, and most people have a difficult time being level headed about others' viewpoints,” said George Nahodil, president and CEO of Members 1st FCU in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Nahodil, who took the helm of the $5.3 billion-asset institution three years ago, said he has always found it surprising that the U.S. has only two political parties yet hosts myriad churches and religions.

“When I think about controlling, encouraging or guiding people about politics I always think about religion,” he said. “Keep it personal and vote for who you think is the best person, because if you try to discuss it then you generally have people walk away with some negativity, which is not good for your business environment.”

Yet advocacy is a key component of the credit union movement, and many institutions regularly host lawmakers from both parties in order to showcase firsthand how the credit union serves its members. Many CUs and industry groups also raise funds for state and federal political action committees that benefit those candidates' campaigns.

Caroline Willard, president and CEO of the Cornerstone Credit Union League, which serves CUs in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, said the trade group has been helping to amplify a get-out-the-vote campaign. “Just this morning, during the ‘Coffee with Caroline' Zoom event that we hold every other Friday, I reminded our employees that we as an association are ‘purple,' ” she said. “We support both blue and red candidates, with the common denominator being that we support those who support credit unions.”

If a league employee is particularly agitated about something a candidate has done or said, Willard said, she will hear them out but ultimately sticks with candidates based on whether they advocate for policies that can benefit the group's member institutions.

Credit unions have a history of supporting candidates on both sides of the aisle, and while many recent elections have leaned toward the GOP, there are signs the industry favors Democratic candidates this time around, though that change is not believed to reflect any sort of broader ideological shift.

There are also plenty or credit unions who choose to stay out of the fray entirely.

Mike Poulos, president and CEO of $1.2 billion-asset Michigan First Credit Union in Lathrup Village, Mich., said his organization does not get involved in anything political. That philosophy extends to even talking about voting, he said. Instead, the company leaves those choices to individual team members.

“Culturally, we are focused so much on serving our fellow human beings, no matter their beliefs or life circumstances, that there is no room for politics — including voting. Serving humans is something we can be 100% unified on, but politics is divisive and adds nothing to our unity and can only break it down,” he said.

Notre Dame FCU in Indiana does not send out any special messaging to staff or members regarding voting. Rather, President and CEO Tom Gryp said the credit union believes everyone is already inundated with political chatter, so it is better to stick to the $843 million-asset institution's mission of financially empowering its member-owners.

But keeping political opinions out of the conversation is something that needs to be taught, noted Tim Scholten, president of the consultancy Visible Progress in Columbus, Ohio. He said it is so easy to offend people on both sides of issues today that it is often wiser for management to keep their teams focused on the civic responsibility to vote their mind, no matter what side of the issues they come down on.

“Our forefathers fought and died for the right for each of us to have a say in how our country is led. We encourage everyone to take that responsibility seriously and be heard,” he said.

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