Regardless of what The West Wing may have told us, elections are always a numbers game. Let’s say your public library serves a community of 10,000 people and you are fielding a $15 million bond measure to build a new library next November. If we run the “national average” numbers for a Congressional election cycle, you will likely have around 7,000 people of voting age in your jurisdiction. Voter registration runs as high as 60 percent for these biennial elections. However, turn out will be as low as 42 percent in a general election. If your bond measure looses by 4 percent, a not unheard of margin, you will have lost by 141 votes. If you are on the primary ballot—where turn out is in the 22 percent range—you lose by just 74 votes. Multiply that by five or by ten for bigger towns and cities and counties and we’re still talking about small numbers of voters.
If you work in a district library where you have to go out for voter approval, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. If you are in a city or county department, or work on a campus, you may not have seen these numbers. But in that example, loosing a $15 million dollar appropriation to build a new public library by 74 votes is a generational fail—a failure of vision or action that lasts well into the future. With a successful bond measure, you have a 20 year revenue source to pay for the facility, staff, and collections. Without a successful bond, it’s an equivalently long lack.
Moving 74 + 1 votes in a town like that doesn’t take tens of thousands of dollars. And it is about moving votes. Through good planning, targeted funding, and energetic Get out the Vote work, we can reach and convert unaware voters for the library. It is about winning that election, because the funding matters to the future of the library and the community it serves.
On Election Day 2012, over $268 million in library appropriations were on dozens of local ballots around the country. There were bonds for new construction and renovation, levies, and millages to renew or extend baseline operating funds, and special taxes to back-fill budget shortfalls. Voters around the country were asked to approve property, use, or sales taxes to ensure that their library has the revenue it needs to serve the next generation as an educational partner, a community hub, and a business and ideas incubator. And some voters said No. Some measures failed. In cities and villages and counties and townships all around the country, a usually unconscious coalition of voters comprised of people who use the library and people who haven’t been in the library since they were kids said No to the library. It happens every election cycle. But EveryLibrary is working to do something dramatic to change that.
EveryLibrary is organized as the first national Political Action Committee (PAC) for libraries. We are chartered as a 501c4 to do two big new things: we are fundraising nationally from people, corporations, unions, and other PACs to provide seed or sustaining money to local ballot committees to do effective Get out the Vote work for their library; and we provide capacity-building consulting to these community groups to help them message effectively and reach their goal on Election Day.
In some ways, EveryLibrary is not a new idea, except in terms of scale and scope. Communities around the country have organized over the years with transitional Ballot Committees and local PACs to run effective Vote Yes campaigns. The local Ballot Committee is, by definition, limited in its scope to work on a particular measure, proposition, or initiative on a local ballot. In most cases it is ad hoc and ceases to exist after Election Day. Being ad hoc does not limit its potential effectiveness to educate voters and encourage them to Vote Yes for the library. EveryLibrary is creating a new system of financial and tactical support for these local committees to help them plan, and run, winning campaigns.
We do 364-day advocacy for libraries pretty well. But there is one day, often the first Tuesday in November, when libraries are not very effective: Election Day. As the first national PAC for libraries, EveryLibrary is a new creature in the library advocacy ecosystem. We may take some getting used to, but we are not looking to crowd out any of the other organizations or associations who live and work in the space. Rather, we occupy a unique niche. EveryLibrary was not founded to re-work, re-imagine, or upend any of the existing library advocacy infrastructures. We were created to address an unfortunate gap in our profession’s advocacy: political action and electioneering.
We need to be talking in a significantly different way with voters about the library on Election Day than we do with our communities about library use. If we treat Election Day as a traditional advocacy initiative, we are using the wrong vocabulary and messaging. In general, the voter is not necessarily a user, and the voter may not be in love with, or a geek about, the library.
EveryLibrary is already at work making the change we seek happen. In February 2013, we helped the Say Yes for Spokane Libraries committee run a great Get out the Vote campaign to secure a $1.6 million dollar special levy. We invested $4,000 and some consulting time with this local committee. The library itself ran an effective informational campaign as well. These efforts were not coordinated. They did combine to help pass the measure with 66 percent of the vote. We’re in the field now with the Citizens for a New Shorewood-Troy Library in suburban Chicago, campaigning for a $28 million dollar bond to build a new library. It is good to work with this community, training them on how to do door-to-door canvassing, develop their messaging, and build local coalitions. We’re hopeful that they’ll win. As 2013 progresses, we’ll work with several other committees on library issues around the country. It is a proof of concept year for us. Looking ahead to 2014, a significant amount of library funding will be on the ballot. EveryLibrary will be ready to help campaign and win for these libraries.
John Chrastka is Executive Director of EveryLibrary, the first national PAC for libraries. Chrastka is president of the Board of Trustees for the Berwyn (IL) Public Library, and former president of the Reaching Across Illinois Libraries System (RAILS) multi-type library system. He is also a Partner at AssociaDirect, a Chicago-based consultancy focused on supporting associations in membership recruitment, conference, and governance activities. Previously, he was Director for Membership Development at the American Library Association (ALA). He is a current trustee member of ALA as well as in the Illinois Library Association (ILA), where he chairs the Fundraising Committee.