Pedernales Electric Co-op voting begins! An overview

UPDATE: We’ve added a little here and there based on some new information we’ve gotten since first publishing this, specifically some information from NRECA (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) and Pedernales’ counsel about the effects of converting to SMDs.

Well folks, yesterday marked the beginning of voting for the board of the Pedernales Electric Coop.  I’m a proud co-op member, something I couldn’t have said several years ago when the co-op board met behind closed doors and the board nominated its own members. But now we have returned to the principle of democratic control by the member-owners of the co-op, in no small part due to the work of Public Citizen and others.

There’s been a lot of news recently about PEC and Public Citizen’s involvement in the reform effort.  We’re not going to comment on that just yet, as we want to keep this focused on the issue at hand, which is the election.  Voters across the co-op have the opportunity to vote for two board seats and on a member referendum about future elections and how they should take place.

You can vote in three ways.  A ballot should have been mailed to you on Wednesday according to PEC staff.  In it you will see that you can vote for candidates in Districts 2 and 3 and on the question of single member districts.  You can see videos of each of the candidates at the PEC Candidate Forum online here. We’ll let the candidates speak for themselves on why they should get your vote, as we do not and will not endorse anyone in these races.

However, what’s missing in all of this is a discussion about the pros and cons of single member district voting. Below I’ve attached the presentation we made to board candidates about what we would like to see in the future for PEC. We lay out a broad vision that investing in the future and the key to lower rates is efficiency and renewables. These also just so happen to help things like clean air, create jobs, and use little water in comparison to traditional power generation.  We believe that as a co-op, based on the principles of what a cooperative is (as opposed to a private utility or municipal utility), we have a special place in the community to be responsible, ethical, and think about the greater good of our policy choices.

Beware– this presentation is loooooooong, but I wanted to bring attention specifically to the slides about the pros and cons of single member districts. (pgs 15-19)

But in the spirit of transparency we wanted to put the entirety of what we spoke to the board candidates about out there. You know, in case someone publicly accuses you of being a secretive, corrupt cabal that pulls the strings at the co-op.

[scribd id=54650680 key=key-w92e1zwplb1yqkw42rp mode=list]

So, let’s discuss single member districts, or SMDs for short. I’m putting on my political science hat (my Political Science 350:  “Theories of Democracy and Democratization” professor would be so proud of me) and let’s talk about what SMDs actually do.  I’m personally agnostic about how people should vote on this. I see good sides and down sides to it, but both sides deserve an airing.

But first, what are we voting on?  This is how it will appear on the ballot:

The Bylaws of the Cooperative require a vote of the Members to recommend to the Board which system should be used for future Director Elections. Please select which of the following options that you prefer for electing PEC Directors.

(A) ______ At-Large System. Under the current, at-large system, the seven Directors reside in different geographical districts. Directors are locally nominated by petition of Members within their district but elected by a vote of Members from all districts, across the Cooperative. Under this system, all Cooperative Members are eligible to vote every year.

(B) ______ Single-Member System. Under a Single-Member System, each of the seven Directors would reside in a different geographical district. They would be nominated and elected locally, by action of only Members within their district. Each Cooperative Member would normally be eligible to vote every three years, when his or her local Director is up for election.

(C) ______ Hybrid, Combination of At-Large and Single-Member System. Under a Hybrid system, most Directors would be elected locally, by members within their Single-Member districts. A smaller number would be elected by all Members of the Cooperative. Each Cooperative Member would normally be eligible to vote every year. This method would require Members to approve a change to the Cooperative Articles of Incorporation.

For how PEC views the issue, please take a look at this document, prepared by PEC staff for GM Juan Garza back when this discussion came up over a year ago.  Among the most important things here are the VAST difference in populations between districts-  Dist 2 and 3 (Anderson Mill, Cedar Park, Leander, Liberty Hill, Georgetwon outskirts) are both by far the largest, followed not too far behind by Buda/Kyle/Circle C-centric District 7 and Marble Falls/Horseshoe Bay/Bertram in District 1.  Switching to SMDs has serious implications for how this would shift the balance of power heavily in favor of the Austin suburbs, and require more frequent redistricting. They also point out that some members would not be able to vote in a board election for over 6 years because of election cycles.  Not very democratic.

Beyond that, here are just some general arguments based on the political science of what kinds of systems you create with single member districts vs voting at large.

The Arguments for Single Member Districts

SMD’s are simple. People inherently understand them because we’re familiar with voting for Congress this way. They also give more empowerment to majorities. Say you live in Cedar Park/North Austin (District 3). If a majority opinion exists in your district that says you want a solar program like Austin Energy has to defray some of the cost or help finance you putting photovoltaics on your house and you want to sell the excess electricity back to the co-op, then once elected the board member is free to represent that opinion, whereas if you are elected at large you understand that people of the minority opinion (who want no solar program) may also have voted for you, often leading to a greater concern about minority rights.

SMD means all majorities all the time, since the only thing you need to worry about is getting 50%+1 of the votes cast in the next election from your home district.  With the majority of co-op members living in the Austin suburbs, SMDs would make the c0-op very Austin-suburb-centric very quickly. Depending on your view of the co-op, you may view that as a positive or a negative, but it would certainly change the character of the co-op from being somewhat rural-centric to very Austin centric.

SMDs also give a sense of connection between the voters and the person they elected. This has both good and bad sides- there is a greater loyalty to the specific interests of the constituents who elected you, but this has the unfortunate byproduct of creating problems of “pork” and pitting geographic areas against one another.  Because I’m advocating for “my” voters, I want to bring home the bacon for “my” constituents.  So the people of Cedar Park and Leander may pit themselves against Kyle/Buda or Marble Falls/Horseshoe Bay.  Because so much of our infrastructure cost is associated with running poles and wires, and it’s always more expensive to run one line out to one house in a rural area but is relatively cheap to wire up an entire new subdivision, board members may be inclined to favor policies which make rural customers pay more for their relatively expensive services.

SMDs are also going to require more frequent redistricting. As much growth is going on in some areas of the co-op, and not others, the districts quickly get out of whack and no longer represent a “one-man, one vote” sort of system.  Soon one board member is representing 30% more people than another board member, yet they both have an equal vote- meaning that the vote strength of the larger districts are diluted.  Voting at large is more forgiving, as even if your districts gains or loses population, you still are elected by every eligible voter.

Bottom line: Single Member Districts will surely make the co-op more suburban/exurban focused: depending on your point of view,you might call that a bad thing or a good thing. It will create geographic splits in the co-op, but may empower majority board members to adopt their agenda more easily.

Arguments for voting at large

Voting at large is the norm for most co-ops across the country and is also how many small and medium cities run their governments.  Because turnout is relatively low, we give everyone as much of a chance to weigh in as possible.  In fact, most of the cities served by PEC elect their city councils at-large.

Voting at large means that while board members may represent one specific geographic area, their constituency is the entire co-op.  This means their duty is toward the common good of all, not to one specific area. There is therefore less balkanization of the co-op. Given the spirit of cooperatives that “We’re all in this together” makes at-large voting a more natural fit. And given the history of co-ops having to be formed because the big utilities claimed it wasn’t profitable enough for them to run their poles and wires out to the rural areas, having a system that gives equal representation to a rural voter and a suburban voter is only fitting.

Furthermore, everyone gets to vote every year. With an SMD, you would only get one vote every three years, and if you didn’t like how things were going you would have to wait until your board member was up for election again to try to affect change.

Some critics of the current board have claimed that SMDs would keep the co-op free from special interest influence, but this is demonstrably false. Our members of Congress and State Legislature are elected from SMDs, and last time I checked special interests are pretty influential in Washington and Austin.  In fact, if SMDs drive down turnout, as is likely, that makes it MORE possible, not less, that a small outside group using direct mail, canvassing, and other modern campaign tactics could win a co-op seat. The lower the turnout, the more impact every vote counts.  If you want to reduce the possibility of influence from special interests, increase turnout. Don’t enact policies that would likely reduce it.

Option 3: A hybrid system

The way this option is written it says a “majority” of seats would be SMDs but based on the idea that everyone still got at least one vote every year.  With a current board size of 7, a majority is 4, and if you want to vote every year you need 3 at-large seats. So for this discussion’s sake let’s assume that is what the co-op would adopt. Well, you can argue this is the best of both worlds- or does it just exacerbate the problems of both systems?  Almost no matter how you slice up the co-op, you will have one extremely large district and probably 2 that are dominated in population by the Austin suburbs. A third would be a medium sized district made up of exurban population centers.  Or you could draw balanced districts that were relatively equal in size as well as population, but that would again put more emphasis on the Austin suburbs as it’s just simpler to get your votes in the compact suburban areas rather than in the sparsely populated rural ones.

Hybrid systems also change the character of boards/councils.  In many cases, the members at large can have disproportionate influence, though it’s impossible to say. In some cases, because they have no geographic power base, the at large members become less important.  Other times, because they represent the entire area they have more influence. Either the inclination towards “pork” and balkanization is counteracted by the at large seats, or they also vote based on their own perceived constituencies, exacerbating the problem.

In any case, co-op members would be represented at all times by 4 members of the Board they individually had the opportunity to vote for (one from your district and 3 at large seats).  And you would get to vote every year, which is a bonus.

Regardless, given the population dispersion of the co-op, truly at large seats would likely be filled by people from the Austin suburbs, just because that’s where the majority of the population is.  Even though they would represent the whole co-op, this plan would, again, like SMDs, tilt the balance of the co-op towards the wants of the suburban areas.


So now I’ve confused myself even more and I have my minds even less made up about which system to vote for:

At large seems to keep the spirit of “all in it together” alive,

SMDs are simple and easy to understand,

and a hybrid system could potentially be the best of both, or the worst of both.

Ultimately, democracy is decided by the people who show up. You have the opportunity to vote on board seats- something we couldn’t do even 5 years ago. Please study the issues and the candidates and choose wisely.