Delaware Electric Cooperative’s annual election is underway with a record number of candidates, as 14 people are seeking six positions on the board of directors. Each seat carries a three-year term.
Due to ongoing COVID concerns, the co-op board adopted a hybrid approach to voting this year, offering online voting that began July 9 and a week of in-person voting Monday, Aug. 2, through Friday, Aug. 6, at the co-op’s Greenwood headquarters.
Although members have more options than ever this year, some candidates have criticized the co-op for making it difficult for members to cast a vote, particularly those who live in poorer communities and the elderly, who have limited or no access to computers or smart phones.
The same concerns were expressed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2201 union and its president Jacob Hudson in a letter sent to the co-op July 25.
In the letter, Hudson says the union voted unanimously to ask that the election be terminated and replaced with a more user-friendly procedure.
At-large candidate Deborah Guenther said the voting process has been very difficult for many people she’s spoken with.
“I even had a hard time voting,” she said.
She says voting is geared toward those who are more tech-savvy who are able to navigate the co-op’s website or use the mobile app.
Voting instructions were included on an inner flap of the co-op’s monthly newsletter “Delaware Living.” While the instructions included dates and times to vote in-person and online, she said, it does not provide a phone number for people to call for assistance. It only directs people to an email address or the co-op’s website.
“What about the elderly and people who don’t have the internet?” she said. “I’m 69 years old and I’ve been voting since I was 18, and this is the most difficulty voting I’ve ever had in my life. The whole process has been very strange.”
District 6 candidate Mary Matthews also expressed concern about electronic voting. Her father and sister do not have computers, so she helped each of them vote. Many other members of the black community are in similar circumstances, she said.
“I work at First State Community Action Agency and we help people with their bills and things like that,” she said. “The biggest problem we run into is technology. A lot of people don’t know how to take pictures of their documents and email them to us.”
In a written response to the union’s letter, DEC Senior Vice President of Member Services Rob Book said only 10 percent of members lack access to a computer or the internet. He says that information was collected through member surveys. For those who cannot use computer at home, with the help of a relative or friend, or use a computer at a local library, he said, in-person voting is offered Aug. 2-6.
After registering as a candidate, Guenther claims she was denied access to the list of voters, which is required in the co-op’s bylaws.
Jeremy Tucker, DEC’s manager of marketing and communications, said all candidates are permitted to come to the co-op’s office and look at the book of members. The book, which contains only names and addresses, is not available electronically, and candidates are not allowed to take photographs of the book. If candidates are sending information to co-op members, Tucker said, it is not with contact information provided to them by the co-op.
Guenther says she was also told that every member would be mailed a ballot.
“I was expecting a ballot in the mail,” she said. “Many people have voted before me because they received an email about voting. I don’t have the smart phone app. Then I got my bill the other day and there wasn’t a ballot, only hidden in the inner flap was there instructions on how to vote.”
Guenther said voting in the past has not been this difficult, which she says gives an advantage to incumbent candidates who already have a base of voters.
Tucker said candidates were never told ballots would be mailed to all members. Instead, members are provided a unique voting credential number that can be used to vote online or in-person. Voting credentials were emailed in early July. For those who do not have an email address on file, voting credentials were mailed. If members misplaced or did not receive voting credentials, they are asked to contact the election administrator, Survey and Balloting Systems, at 952-974-2339 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tucker said the election process was set up in the spring of 2020, but no contested election was held last year. They adopted the same election process this year.
“In our opinion, this is the most open, fair and transparent election process we’ve ever had,” he said. “We’ve really done our best to go out of our way to help those who have trouble voting.”
He says the election has been a success so far, with more than 2,400 members already casting their votes. The average number of voters is usually well below 1,000, he said. The most recent turnout was the 2018 election, which attracted 659 members.
Survey and Balloting Systems provides a running tally of the number of votes cast to date. Tucker said they do not provide any advance information on how the elections results are shaping up.
“Survey and Balloting Systems is the gold standard for electric co-ops across the country,” Tucker said. “They were recommended to us last spring. They come highly recommended. We talked to other organizations and they’ve said they’ve done a wonderful job.”
Prior to COVID, the co-op would have one day of voting at its annual meeting. Voting was managed by the Department of Elections.
The 11-member board is elected by the co-op membership. The board is the governing body of the co-op, representing the interests of the more than 107,000 members. The board hires and evaluates the performance of the co-op's CEO, votes on rate changes and performs other important tasks related to governance.
This year, in-person voting is scheduled from 8:30 a.m., to 4:30 p.m., Monday, Aug. 2, through Friday, Aug. 6, at the co-op’s Greenwood headquarters at 14198 Sussex Highway. Members may also vote virtually. Online voting on the co-op’s website or through the co-op’s mobile app opened July 9 and closes at 8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 6.
For in-person voting, members are to bring their unique voting credentials they received in the mail or via e-mail.
Results will be announced at the co-op’s annual meeting at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 10. This year’s meeting will be virtual.
In general, there is one vote per household; however, members with multiple accounts who also have multiple member numbers are able to vote based on how many member numbers they have been assigned. Members are automatically registered to vote, and may vote once either online or in-person.
Online voting was approved in 2020 so members could safely vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. After this year’s voting process has ended, the board will evaluate the online voting program and determine the best path forward, Tucker said.
The co-op was formed in 1936 by a group of farmers in southern Delaware. The major utilities at the time wouldn’t invest the capital to expand the electrical infrastructure to rural areas, so farmers formed a nonprofit utility and financed rural electrification themselves. Although the co-op has changed a lot since, it is still member-owned.
To learn more about the election or view biographies of each candidate, go to www.delaware.coop/2021-annual-meeting.