As I write this column, the US presidential election season is finally getting underway. As a secondary social studies teacher, I routinely stress to my students the importance of voting in all available elections. Above all else, voting allows you to influence the direction the country is headed. That is not only a benefit of living in a representative democracy, but also a primary right and obligation.

Assuredly, alongside each candidate’s campaign will be general “get out the vote” campaigns...and for good reason. Though internationally the U.S. portrays itself as a leading democratic state, the average voter participation rate in presidential election years is dismal. In fact, in a study of all countries and all elections since 1948, the U.S. ranks 138th in voter participation.

Since 1964 the average voter participation rate in U.S. presidential election years is just over 60%. For the 2004 general election, citizens in the over-65 bracket voted at the highest rate: 68%, with those in the 18-25 year old bracket voting at the lowest rate: 41%. Leading the nation, 78% of Minnesotans voted, while Hawaiians voted at the lowest rate, 41%. (Wisconsin’s rate was 73.6%) How is it that people living in a representative democracy do not feel compelled, if not inspired, to vote? I know, you’re not sitting in civics class right now and don’t need a lecture on your civic obligations. Besides, surely your Co-op filled with members well-versed on democratically controlled enterprises have greater participation rates than this in their own elections. Right? Read on.

Co-op Board of Director elections

Selecting a President this year is not the only opportunity for you to affect the direction this country (okay, this community) is headed. Each year the Co-op holds Board of Director elections. While not making decisions that affect the nation, the Board of Directors do make decisions impacting you and your local community. In fact, during the past five years the Board has overseen many important decisions including:

  • setting the direction for opening the Production Kitchen;
  • deciding to open a second retail location; and
  • voting to have our lowest paid worker make the “Dane County living wage.”

Our future looks equally eventful. Upcoming decisions will include discussions surrounding:

  • whether or not to give patronage rebates;
  • the structure of the senior discount program; and
  • continuing issues surrounding the opening of a second location.

Despite the significance of these decisions for the Co-op and its membership, do you know what the voter turnout has been for the past Board of Director elections? Are you ready? In each of the past three elections, little more than 4% of the Co-op membership voted for their Board of Directors. (Granted, that’s a significant increase from the 2003 election where only 1.4% of members voted.) And you thought voter participation in the presidential election was low! We can do better!

The Co-op needs owner participation in decision-making. Greater participation creates a stronger more inclusive coop, while at the same time ensuring long-term support for its decisions and business direction. Voting is not only your member responsibility but one of membership’s greatest benefits.

We are anticipating another strong group of Board candidates who will each be making statements at the Annual Membership Meeting July 10th. You’ll also be able to read their profiles in the August issue of the Reader. (In fact, there are even a few days left if you want to consider running for the Board of Directors. Contact the Board at all-board@willystreet.coop, visit http://www.willystreet.coop/board_nominations, or stop in at the Customer Service desk to ask any questions you might have.)

I challenge you to vote this year and encourage other members to vote as well. Talk about the elections with your friends. We need your perspective in the election. Can we double our voter participation rate this year? Can we get it to 10%? Well, that’s up to you.