Rural Communities Depend on Co-op Voters


Steve Freese
President and CEO

“Are you ready for a war?!” Some may recall this line from the 1995 movie Braveheart, in which Mel Gibson’s character William Wallace leads an uprising of 13th-century Scottish highlanders against a tyrannical English king and his conquest of the Scots. I’m of course taking some liberty with political hyperbole here, but this is what I feel is coming to Wisconsin this fall. As the political universe focuses its crosshairs on our state—particularly for the U.S. Senate, gubernatorial, and 3rd congressional district races—we will also see significant activity in dozens of legislative seats now that reapportionment has finally been settled by the courts.

On that last note, for anyone willing to make the case for term limits, Wisconsin’s legislature is currently trying to make the opposing argument. As of this writing, 28 legislators are not seeking re-election for their current seats, a little more than 20% turnover. Historically, the number of retirements ranks relatively high. We are going to see quite a few new faces in the Capitol building come January.

All this political focus, and all the spending that accompanies it, will put added emphasis on the most rural parts of Wisconsin for voter participation and turnout. Having strong, rural representation in the legislative branch is especially important, but when you compound all this potential electioneering on top of the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data it will present additional challenges and opportunities. The Census Bureau reports U.S. decennial population growth was 7.4% but here in Wisconsin our population only increased by 3.6%, barely enough to keep us from losing a congressional seat like our neighbors did in Illinois and Michigan.

Many have deemed it worrisome that we have seen a shift in Wisconsin, and similarly across the country, of people moving from rural counties to more urban areas. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported that while the state experienced population growth, nearly 30% of the counties, primarily in rural areas, lost residents. So, our challenge is that rural communities are losing population to urban areas. Conversely, our opportunity is that elected officials know that to win elections they must still reach out to rural voters. For those of us who live in rural Wisconsin, we must seize on this to make our voices heard.

Having served for 16 years in the State Assembly I can tell you there are a lot of issues that find commonality in urban and rural areas. However, I do believe divisions are growing in agriculture, energy, land use, and state budgeting, just to name a few. Shrinking rural populations can negatively impact our representation at the Capitol, but we can offset that by having significantly larger voter turnout in elections. The campaign teams for governor, U.S. Senate and House, and legislative offices in Madison recognize we are still a political voice to be reckoned with. Not only will they look to us on issues that affect your electric cooperative, but also critical issues like school aids, local road funding, and broadband deployment.

Election spending in Wisconsin will likely exceed $200 million. You will be absolutely inundated with radio, television, and print advertisements. A lot of negative noise will come our way. It is incumbent upon all of us to understand the real issues that affect your electric cooperative and be informed when you have conversations with family and friends, talk to candidates, and eventually cast your ballot. Our goal here is to encourage you to vote. We will never tell you for whom to vote. We are confident you will make an informed decision that will benefit you and our rural communities. We just ask that you be an active participant. Nothing is more important to the survival of a representative democracy.