These are exciting times for the ALA. The election results are in! And there’s nothing more exciting than ALA election results! Because, as the press release says, it is "the oldest and largest library organization in the world" and "has a membership of more than 62,000 librarians, library trustees and library supporters." Wow!
Okay, I can’t keep up the excitement anymore, and apparently neither can the ALA membership. Molly Raphael defeated Sara Kelly Johns for ALA President. "Raphael received 5,857 votes. Johns received 4,399 votes." As the LJ article on the election noted, "of 55,330 eligible voters, 11,069 (20.01%) voted, compared to 23.41% last year."
However, the numbers for ALA President are different. Based on the figures above, only 10,256 members voted for either candidate, which is only 18.5% of eligible voters. The winning candidate for ALA President received 10.6% of eligible votes. It makes one wonder why anyone bothers, because most people certainly don’t.
Compare the last two United States Presidential Elections, where over 60% of the eligible voters voted. When the voter turnout drops below 50%, the pundits start worrying about voter apathy and the fraying of the republic and other such things. I think our ALA republic is quite frayed.
18.5% of eligible voters voted for ALA President. What does this say about the ALA? There are at least two possibilities, neither of them pretty.
First, it could signal a legitimacy or authority crisis of sorts. The government’s there, but it doesn’t do anything useful anymore and no one believes in its authority. If 80% of eligible voters don’t even have the will to click on a a link in their emails and look at a ballot page, it doesn’t say much about their interest or faith in the ALA. If the ALA elected officers actually controlled anything in the ALA, this would be a disaster. Library pundits would be frothing at the mouth about how the ALA was totally disconnected from the membership and how it had no governing authority as a democratic body. The low voter turnout makes any claim that the ALA acts on behalf of its members absurd.
Then again, it could show that 80% of ALA members just don’t care about the ALA President or any other part of the organization. Why might this be?
Possibly because neither the ALA President nor the ALA Council do anything useful for the membership, nor do they do anything harmful except make librarians look silly sometimes by passing ridiculous resolutions.
They get together a couple of times a year, pass some resolutions, debate some trivial points, bore everyone except the masochistic, but never seem to do anything meaningful. ALA members don’t care who "governs" the ALA because nothing relevant ever comes of it.
It gets even more ridiculous when one looks at the list of ALA Councilors. Members can vote for a huge number of councilors, but usually don’t. Why? Because they’ve never heard of any of these people. I looked down the long list of winners, and the only one I’d heard of was Bernie Margolis. Most of these Councilors were elected with fewer than 2,000 votes. That means that if just 3% of the eligible voters voted for them, they could get elected to Council.
10.6% of eligible voters voted for the winning Presidential candidate. 5% of the eligible voters voted for the Councilor with by far the most votes. This is hardly a mandate for change. It’s not even a mandate to govern.
Given this turnout, what are we left to conclude about the ALA governance? First, it’s certainly not a democratic body in any meaningful sense. The vast majority don’t care enough to vote, and we don’t really know why. If some African strongman got this sort of turnout, the belief that the "elected" leader had authority to govern would be laughable.
The harder question is why so few bother? I suspect it’s because the ALA governance doesn’t really matter. The President and Council get together and feel important, but it’s very clear that a super-majority of the ALA membership doesn’t care what they do. That’s because they don’t do much, even with the tiny amount of power they have.
A crisis of authority? It might be, if the ALA President or Council were a legitimate governing body in the first place. If it is, and if the members of that body consider themselves such, then they have no democratic authority to do anything. They should just all resign and we’ll start over.
On the other hand, if they don’t consider themselves a governing body, but just some sort of puppet organization designed to mimic a democratic governance of the ALA bureaucracy–which is where most of the real work gets done– then they should all resign and we won’t start over.
Either way, there seems to be no support for the claim that the President and Council act on behalf of the membership. The membership doesn’t care, and they have no reason to care. Keep that in mind the next time Council passes some irrelevant resolution. Or even a relevant one. Democracy depends on the consent of the governed, not the the complete lace of concern of those who aren’t really governed anyway.