Our colleagues in the political sciences spend considerable time studying voter behavior. They have identified several key reasons that people do or don’t come out to the polls. Human factors like self-identification with a candidate’s issues, personal familiarity with the candidate, and the voter’s own sense of civic responsibility set a baseline for likely support. Whether the voter trusts the election process and government in general, is knowledgeable about the issues and not just personalities, and whether there are barriers to his or her enfranchisement are also significant drivers. Finally, is the voter motivated to go to the polls to punch a chad, or does the campaign need to activate him or her? Over time, candidates have leveraged and shaped these human behaviors into the modern Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign.
In library parlance, GOTV approaches becomes best practices for us to follow in library ballot campaigns. We have a toolkit from the Poli Sci world that we can study, adapt, and win with at the polls. Library campaigns need to understand these factors and work to activate voters when a measure is on the ballot. It is ground work that will pay off on Election Day as well as the other 364 Advocacy Days in the year. Let’s unpack the baseline parts of the toolkit today and focus on activating likely voters for the library:
A Habit of Voting
Is the voter a frequent, habitual voter who believes it is his or her civic duty to come out and vote, or an occasional voter who comes out only during presidential years? This matters a great deal to incumbents and parties. If the numbers are right, candidates can build campaigns by activating their partisan base of supporters while minimizing exposure outside of their base of friendly, regular voters. For library measures, which are non-partisan by nature, we need to look closely at reaching frequent voters of any persuasion. In a non-partisan, pro-library way, the most library-friendly voter should be the frequent voter, because that person has a personal habit, based in civic duty or family tradition, of coming out to vote. The frequent voter needs to become our friend because he or she will come out in February for a municipal primary, mail-in a ballot for a school board slate in June, and will have voted in every presidential primary and general election since Reagan vs Carter. Frequent voters have a high likelihood of voting all the way down the ballot, past the judicial races and city charter amendments, to the end. And this is where library measures usually live. They vote because they “should.” Because they don’t stop voting with the president, governor, or mayor, you want to make sure they know about the library measure and have made a personal commitment to vote for the library. Otherwise, you leave it up to the way the ballot measure is worded. Frequent voters are not necessarily overly aware voters.
For local ballot committees running a Vote Yes campaign, you find the frequent voter by looking at voter data from your county, state, or local elections office. In particular, ask for an ‘enhanced voter file’ that shows voter registration status, and possibly voter by voter turnout, on an election by election basis. If the file is well built, you can quickly analyze who has voted or was registered to vote in each of the last four to six elections. If the files are not normalized, you can use a tool like Nation Builder to provide necessary enhancements. Look beyond national races, and consider voters who turn out for local and off-cycle elections as your very best friends. These are the people you want to reach, provide with a reason to vote, and to whom you want to attach a personal identification with the library measure on the ballot. Let’s talk about how.
Reason to Vote
In political races, crucial questions include, does a voter have a stake in the issue, candidate or party, the policies that are being espoused by the candidates, and the direction the candidates would take the town, state or country? Have they been told a compelling story about how the candidate shares their values or will actualize a shared vision of the future? Candidates spend enormous time and effort in framing their stories for their target voters. For library ballot measures, this means thinking differently about the library’s reason to exist and behaving differently in voter outreach than you would in patron outreach. When considering reasons to vote for the library, please remember both the library user and the non-user. For users, reasons to vote may be tied easily to the strategic plan for the library. More funding means more collections, programs, services for different ages and populations, or a better facility to serve the public over time. For non-users, especially those who may not become users by Election Day, the reasons you provide should be focused on solving community problems first, and appeal to the personal needs of the voter second. For non-users, more funding for collections, programs, and services translates into afterschool programs to keep at-risk kids off the street or giving seniors a place to gather and read or helping some other group of “those people.” These voters may never come to the library, but we need them to vote for it on Election Day. And while we should circle back around to them later to talk advocacy, today we talk with them about the library measure. Here is how.
Personal Contact with the Candidate
The final key reason voters support candidates is that the voter met the candidate or the candidate’s representative and were personally asked for their support. The personal candidate contact could have been at a rally or event, through phone banks, or door-to-door canvassing. But it is that most human of personal contacts that makes the most difference. When a voter answers “yes” to the question “will you vote for me or my candidate?,” they tend to do so on Election Day. The most effective place to ask is at the voters’ front doors.
For library ballot measures, the candidate isn’t the library, it is the librarian. In 2008, OCLC’s “From Awareness to Funding” identified that the single most significant factor influencing voter attitudes about libraries is their perception of the librarian. When running an Information-Only campaign for the library, getting the librarian out into the community to talk to voters—especially frequent voter—and tell them the reasons the library is on the ballot is extraordinarily effective. Granted, in Information-Only campaigns, and while on the clock, librarians cannot generally say “Vote Yes,” yet you have a responsibility in the public trust to talk about what this new or renewed funding is intended to do for the community. What you can and can’t say about the ballot measure itself should be addressed with your library’s legal counsel. But what you can always ask is, “did I answer all your questions about the library?”
For library ballot committees, your volunteers are not the librarian or the library’s official representative, but your stakeholders and, possibly, users who can provide personal reasons for supporting the library and asking neighbors to Vote Yes. Even in this highly connected age of social media and micro-targeted advertising, nothing is more effective than person-to-person, in-person contact. Canvassing and phone banking is not a silver bullet for your library campaign. It is, however, a happy intersection of low cost and high impact for message delivery.
You may never have to run a ballot measure at your library. You may never have to go to the voters directly, but I would argue that you have to behave as if every budget cycle is a ballot measure and every strategic plan is a referendum on the library. If you are entirely self-governed, your trustees still need to answer to the voters themselves. If you are a municipal department where the selectmen, city council, or county judge sets your revenue, you still have a wonderful opportunity to use the techniques of canvassing and phone banking to radically improve the visibility of the librarian and the awareness of the library in your community. Walking and talking makes a difference in political campaigns from president on down.
My advice to every library is to get out of the library and walk your precincts. If you are in a city or town with enough door-to-door density, then running a traditional political-style canvas is as easy as grabbing a clip board, pointing to a corner on the map, and making the first knock. If you are in a more sprawling setting, think about phone banking your community or doing the meetings and events circuit. Take a page out of the political races and back up your canvas and phone banking with some zipcode-level direct advertising on Facebook that talks about your strategic plan or outreach initiative.
An effective and legitimate reason to go door to door is a community needs assessment. Then go back out to canvas households for their opinions on your first draft. Call them and ask for five minutes to talk about their library and the plans you are making for its future. I’ve heard a variation on the following from several librarians who had failing measures: “The first time we asked enough people in our community for their attitude about a new tax was on Election Day.” If you have a ballot measure coming up in the next few years, I want to see you and your staff, friends, and trustees get in the habit of canvassing. Taking the community survey door to door is an amazing opportunity to “break the seal” and leave the building. No one likes getting the door slammed in their face, hearing no, or getting an earful from someone with a bone to pick about an issue or candidate or institution. But you will get good news along with negative feedback. And you will make a dramatic impression that the librarians care, that there is a reason to vote for the library, and when the time comes you will have already started to ask them to Vote Yes for the library.
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.