February 17, 2018

Winning All Over the Map | Budgets & Funding


On the face of it, 2014 looks like it was a pretty good year for libraries at the ballot box: some 148 libraries reporting for this tally won and 42 lost. About 78% of libraries passed funding, bonds, or authority measures in 2014. Over 1.7 million Americans voted yes for their libraries. Only 22% lost. While unfortunate, it doesn’t seem tragic or perilous. But at EveryLibrary, we’re worried about the 1.1 million Americans who voted no this year.

Nonetheless, we’d like to figure out why winners win and losers lose, in order to help ensure that there are more of the former and fewer of the latter in the future. At EveryLibrary, we hear stories from both winning and losing campaigns that try to make sense of an election, that try to put a frame around voter behavior. The winning campaigns must have played all their cards right; the losing campaigns must have missed something. What elusive but critical error did the losers make? It’s probably just a matter of tinkering with the campaign and running it again. They’ll get there eventually. In any given year, somewhere between 65% and 80% campaigns succeed.

No shorthand to success

To help get there, we’d like the 2014 election results to coalesce into a new version of conventional wisdom, something our industry can look to for best practices and shorthand planning. Unfortunately, the 2014 library election results yield no simple guide. There are no significant reportable differences in the win/loss rate or the margin of victory/defeat when considering the timing, type, demographics, or dollar amount of the library ballot measures.

“We won because…” often focuses on timing. The generally accepted belief is that it’s better to run a measure during a primary or special election instead of a general election, but this year’s numbers don’t bear that out. On general elections in 2014, we saw 79% win and 21% lose. On primary or special elections, 77% were winners and 23% were losers.

“We lost because…” sometimes focuses on the type of tax, questioning voter tolerance for a bond over an operating levy, or a lack of a “sunset” provision as the reason it failed. Some libraries even wonder if they won because they didn’t ask for enough money, or lost because they asked for too much. However, these individual narratives are contradictory and lack strong patterns.

It didn’t appear to matter whether the state flipped from blue to red or back. The outliers weren’t that far out: the smallest margin of victory was 12 votes; the smallest defeat was by 18. The largest point spread was 80% yes to 20% no; there is a loss that went the other way, too. Still, another ballot measure asked voters for the first increase to the levy since 1959. And another was a November rerun of a voided August election. The 2014 referendum landscape is littered with four-, five-, seven-, ten-, and 20-year levy renewals that won or lost for no reason we can discern in the data. Trim off the outliers, and the median looks like a median.

Urban, suburban, exurban, and rural libraries fared about the same. We can look up and down the list trying to tease out a system. For every measure in the loss column, there were two in the win column with similar characteristics. New libraries, reestablished libraries, big money, small money, advisory referenda, operating funds, bonds, sunsets, or perpetual levies, it didn’t seem to matter in 2014.

Razor thin margins

We at EveryLibrary are concerned about what we see as a softness in voter support, e.g., the close margins of victory and loss. While the numbers in the aggregate look good, with only 22% of referenda going down to defeat, it is curious that both large communities like Jacksonville/Duval County, FL (population 885,000), and small places like Hudson, MI (population 2,270), had razor-thin margins.

Of nearly 200 campaigns, 32 were won or lost by fewer than ten percentage points, with 17 of those having less than a five-point margin (e.g., 52% yes to 48% no is a four-point margin).

Beyond the numbers

Based on the data, there should be no conventional wisdom about library elections. The conversations we have with one another about library elections have been relying on rules of thumb that don’t actually exist. We need to look at what doesn’t appear in the results column, something specifically qualitative: the local political climate and the role that opposition to libraries and librarians played in some of the losing ballots.

EveryLibrary is the first organization to participate in the entire life cycle of multiple library referenda campaigns nationwide. We help library communities win funding in two ways: at the ballot box and through more effective budget negotiations with local government. As such, we are more concerned with the opposition than with those who already support libraries. Since we started work in fall 2012, we have been involved with about 35 library communities as they consider, plan, and move through to a vote. What we discovered is the missing ingredient in the 2014 campaign ­analysis.

The forces of “No”

Library leaders need to look deeper into the characteristics of the 1.1 million Americans who voted no this year and the as-yet-unknown number who will vote no in 2015. We must have a frank conversation about why we lose elections that look, from the data, to be strikingly similar to those that won. EveryLibrary is starting to see what happens when opposition to libraries and librarians hits. In 2014, active opposition killed a few library campaigns—even when organized and invested local advocates worked in support of those measures.

Opposition forces influence voters in two ways: through voter suppression and through Vote No activation. For example, negative direct mail can flood a community before an election either to bring out the preexisting No base or to make otherwise positive-leaning people who are soft Yes voters simply skip the question on the ballot. When the local political leadership is not aligned behind the library, leaders’ questions, comments, and publicly expressed concerns can deter voters from supporting the library. Organized antitax groups and negative-facing local pols are both powerful forces against library measures. Both work to sow confusion or otherwise weaken the Yes vote for libraries.

It’s true that images of the library as outmoded in an Internet age are present in the electorate, but in our experience the majority of antitax and local opponents don’t focus on the institution. The brand and the image of the library is still too good for political organizations and most politicians to go in that direction. Instead, they focus on the management of the director, the worth of the librarians, and the lack of good governance by trustees or commissioners. This works against libraries because librarians and trustees too often cannot answer these challenges in the court of public ­opinion.

A taxing problem

When a library goes out for a vote, the librarians stop being partners in education, skills building, personal enrichment, and community identity. We turn into the Tax Man. Even if for just one day, some voters and the public (even those who use library services) look at libraries as a cost center instead of a shared resource. On Election Day, libraries and the amazing, transformative work they do get reduced to being simply another tax—and library communities hate to talk about taxes.

There is a fundamental philosophical difference between the progressive tax policies that fund libraries and tax policies espoused by the Tea Party and similar organizations. The philosophical discussion plays out in town hall meetings, city council budget hearings, and at the ballot box. The strange occurrences in the November 2014 elections when states went red for statewide offices while still voting Yes on issues such as legalizing medical marijuana and increasing the minimum wage are a symptom of this tension between individual liberty and public policy around the role of taxes in civic life.

We saw glimpses of organized and unorganized antitax sentiments in other campaigns around the country as well in 2014. Two notable losses were in Pomona, CA, and Birmingham, MI. Pomona asked voters to reestablish a core parcel tax that had been defeated in 2012. After that loss, the library reorganized as a volunteer-led and donor-supported organization. The basic tax support, in addition to the staffing, collections, programs, and services that go along with it, is missing. By contrast, the Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham asked if the community wanted to replace an outdated part of the facility with a modern wing. The building plan went through years of work by the staff, trustees, and professional consultants. It was developed in response to community input, taking future demographic changes and use patterns into account.

Both Pomona and Birmingham engaged the public in a long process of voter education and outreach. (EveryLibrary was involved with Pomona from the start.) However, within a week to ten days before the vote, organized anti­tax groups from outside their immediate areas damaged each campaign. In Pomona, the California Association of Realtors spent at least $35,000 in negative direct mail to voters right before the election. Three separate mailings that were engineered to cast doubt on the measure, question the integrity of the process, and frame the library tax as putting a regressive burden on households arrived in the last few days before the election. It worked. In Birmingham, two different out-of-state Tea Party groups took aim at the building referendum. Those efforts were also successful.

Library leaders can work to neutralize antitax opposition like this. One standout this year was the Kent District Library in Michigan. Under the leadership of Director Lance Werner, the library actively engaged local antitax groups a full year before going out for the August 2014 ballot. Werner knew that the only way to neutralize the opposition was to engage radically and transparently with them about how the library spends public money. It isn’t always successful, but this type of engagement is our responsibility and our opportunity to redefine the library tax as different from “any tax.”

All politics is local

Librarians are in political jobs. As department heads, they sit next to every other town, city, or county official, and their revenue comes from the same general fund. As leaders of independent districts, they work in an eco­system of other taxing bodies and units of government subjected to the same tax caps. Taxes mean money, and money is power. And in the local political eco­system, the power of politics can also play a role against libraries.

We saw this most dramatically in campaigns we worked on in places as diverse as Jacksonville, FL; Monroeville, PA; Northvale, NJ; and on the eastern shore of Virginia. EveryLibrary got involved in these campaigns precisely because of the local friction between the political establishment and local library advocates. The friction came from both sides of the political spectrum. We only won one of them, but we’re noting them because the situations are not unique. Other stories of local politicians acting against the library are less visible to us, but we estimate that at least 10% of the 2014 losses were owing to recalcitrant local politicos.

A pernicious approach to local opposition revolves around the people in power deciding to sit out the election. They won’t say anything negative about the library, but they also won’t bring out their political organizations in support of a measure. When folks who should be our friends remain silent, it can be enough to chip away a winning margin at the polls. In 2014, 20 libraries won or lost by five-point margins. It doesn’t take much to swing a community.

Campaigns can work to neutralize local political opposition, too. In Corning, NY, the Southeast Steuben County Library reran and won an October 2014 referendum to reestablish the library as an independent taxing body. A similar measure had narrowly failed a year prior, partially due to resistance from state senators and assembly members. At that time, there was a concern that the library district would create a double-taxing situation and those members of the state legislature were publicly opposed to the library measure. Director Pauline Emery actively incorporated the concerns of constituents and restructured the measure. The win puts the library back on the tax rolls and ensures stable operating funds for years to come.

In 2014, not every election that answered the opposition won. Still, there is little doubt that every library community that had an answer built a stronger community of supporters.

Start early

What the presence of obstacles points to is the need to start campaigning earlier. As much as we need time to introduce our ideas to the voters, we need time to let the opposition surface. If we wait for the last few weeks before the election to see what might pop up, we’re running the risk of being too late to respond.

Library leadership needs to start campaigns early, even before having ballot language. Start engaging the opposition now, even before a site is selected or a tax rate is set. Start drawing in the other side now because it is the only way to quiet them and educate them. It is up to us to tell the opposition why the tax used for this project—this funding measure that supports the future of our mutual community—is different from any other tax; how it potentially supports a mutual goal. Then, be ready to tell your public that you have had that conversation, shown the budget, and met the competition. The public expects libraries and librarians to have the answers to tough questions: let’s show them they’re right.


Fort Smith Fort Smith Public Library Fail 36% 64%
Altadena Altadena Library District Pass 85% 15%
Georgetown El Dorado Public Library – Georgetown Branch Pass 77% 23%
Pomona Pomona Public Library Fail 49% 51%
Sacramento Sacramento Public Library Pass 73% 27%
San Anselmo San Anselmo Library Pass 72% 28%
San Jose San Jose Public Library Pass 81% 19%
San Rafael Marin County Free Library Pass 78% 22%
Sonoma County Sonoma County Library Fail 62% 38%
South Lake Tahoe El Dorado County Library – South Lake Tahoe Branch Pass 79% 21%
Woodland Woodland Public Library Pass 66% 34%
Bonners Ferry Boundary County District Library Fail 25% 75%
Loves Park North Suburban Library District Fail 47% 53%
McHenry River East Public Library Fail 30% 70%
Minier H.A. Peine District Library Pass 59% 41%
Park Ridge Park Ridge Public Library Pass 57% 43%
Sugar Grove Sugar Grove Public Library District Fail 29% 71%
Bossier City Bossier Parish Library Pass 51% 49%
Livingston Livingston Parish Library Pass 68% 32%
Marksville Avoyelles Parish Library Fail 46% 54%
Minden Webster Parish Library Pass 85% 15%
Wareham Wareham Free Library Fail 32% 68%
Alma Gratiot County Public Libraries Pass 63% 37%
Bay City Bay County Library System Pass 71% 29%
Belleville Belleville Area District Library Fail 38% 62%
Birmingham Baldwin Public Library Pass 69% 31%
Bloomfield Hills Bloomfield Township Public Library Pass 63% 37%
Cadillac Cadillac Wexford Public Library Pass 68% 32%
Cass City Rawson Memorial Library Pass 80% 20%
Chase, Luther, Idlewild, Baldwin Lake County Public Libraries Pass 68% 32%
Chelsea Chelsea District Library Pass 59% 41%
Clarkston Clarkston Independence District Library Pass 68% 32%
Clinton Township Clinton-Macomb Public Library Pass 58% 42%
Comstock Park Kent District Library Pass 57% 43%
Detroit Detroit Public Library Pass 75% 25%
DeWitt DeWitt District Library Pass 59% 41%
Douglas Saugatuck-Douglas District Library Fail 41% 59%
Galesburg Galesburg Charleston Memorial District Library Pass 63% 37%
Gaylord Otsego County Library Pass 74% 26%
Hamburg Hamburg Township Library Pass 55% 45%
Harrison Township Harrison Township Public Library Pass 52% 48%
Hemlock Rauchholz Memorial Library Pass 61% 39%
Hesperia Hesperia Community Library Pass 74% 26%
Hudson Hudson Carnegie District Library Pass 51% 49%
Iron River West Iron District Library Pass 87% 13%
Kalamazoo Kalamazoo Public Library District Pass 76% 25%
Kalkaska Kalkaska County Public Library Pass 64% 36%
Lansing Capital Area District Libraries Pass 77% 23%
Leonard Addison Township Public Library Fail 48% 51%
Leonard Addison Township Public Library Pass 55% 45%
Lexington Moore Public Library Pass 75% 25%
Manchester Manchester District Library Pass 70% 30%
Marquette Peter White Public Library Fail 48% 52%
Marquette Peter White Public Library Pass 75% 25%
Millington Millington Arbela District Library Pass 72% 28%
Newberry Tahquamenon Area Public Library Pass 62% 38%
Northville Northville District Library Pass 76% 24%
Oxford Oxford Public Library Fail 48% 52%
Oxford Oxford Public Library Fail 44% 56%
Pinckney Pinckney Community Public Library Pass 53% 47%
Plainwell Charles A. Ransom District Library Pass 59% 41%
Port Huron St. Clair County Library System Pass 68% 32%
Redford Redford Township District Library Pass 66% 34%
Reed City Reed City Area District Library Pass 51% 49%
Reese Reese Unity District Library Pass 76% 24%
Rogers City Presque Isle District Library Pass 70% 30%
Roscommon Roscommon Area District Library Pass 60% 40%
Rose City Ogemaw District Library Fail 39% 61%
Rose City Ogemaw District Library Pass 54% 46%
Rose City Ogemaw District Library Pass 64% 36%
Sebewaing Sebewaing Township Library Pass 66% 34%
Sebewaing Sebewaing Township Library Pass 80% 20%
South Lyon Salem-South Lyon District Library Pass 73% 27%
Spring lake Spring Lake District Library Pass 66% 34%
Tekonsha Tekonsha Township Library Fail 35% 65%
Temperance Monroe County Library System – Bedford Branch Fail 44% 56%
Thompsonville Betsie Valley District Library Pass 59% 41%
Vassar Bullard Sanford Memorial Library Pass 71% 29%
Wakefield Wakefield Public Library Pass 67% 33%
Walled Lake Walled Lake City Library Pass 75% 25%
Watervliet Watervliet District Library Pass 65% 35%
White Lake White Lake Township Library Pass 70% 30%
Zeeland Howard Miller Public LIbrary Pass 67% 33%
Centralia Centralia Public Library Pass 65% 35%
St. James James Memorial Public Library Pass 53% 47%
St. James James Memorial Public Library VOID 50% 50%
Union Scenic Regional Library Pass 53% 47%
Charlotte Public Library of Charlotte Mecklenburg Fail 39% 61%
Northvale Northvale Public Library Pass 53% 47%
statewide New Mexico Go Bond Pass 63% 37%
Amenia Amenia Free Library Pass 60% 40%
Cattaraugus and Little Valley Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System Pass 65% 35%
Elmira Chemung County Library District Pass 63% 37%
Great Neck Great Neck Library Pass 73% 27%
Hillsdale Roeliff Jansen Community Library Fail 40% 60%
Kinderhook Kinderhook Memorial Library Pass 65% 35%
Kingston Kingston Library Pass 79% 21%
Poughkeepsie Poughkeepsie Public Library District Pass 62% 38%
Union George F. Johnson Mem. Library and YHPL Pass 63% 37%
Bellevue Bellevue Public Library Pass 59% 41%
Bowling Green Wood County District Public Library Pass 71% 29%
Bryan Williams County Public Library Pass 73% 27%
Cleveland Heights Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library Pass 68% 32%
Coldwater Coldwater Public Library Pass 71% 29%
Elyria Elyria Public Library System Pass 60% 39%
Euclid Euclid Public Library Pass 68% 32%
Forest Forest-Jackson Public Library Pass 64% 36%
Garrettsville Portage County District Library Fail 43% 57%
Granville Granville Public Library Pass 73% 27%
Gratis Marion Lawrence Memorial Library Fail 43% 57%
McConnelsville Kate Love Simpson-Morgan County Library Pass 66% 34%
Mechanicsburg Mechanicsburg Public Library Pass 65% 35%
Morrow Salem Township Public Library Pass 60% 40%
Mt. Sterling Mt. Sterling Public Library Fail 49% 51%
Nelsonville Athens County Public Libraries Pass 65% 35%
New Philadelphia Tuscarawas County Public Library Pass 62% 38%
Newark Licking County Library Pass 61% 39%
Niles McKinley Memorial Library Pass 67% 33%
North Ridgeville Lorain County Public Library System, North Ridgeville branch Pass 68% 32%
Oak Harbor Oak Harbor Public Library Pass 67% 33%
Painesville Morley Library Pass 64% 36%
Paulding Paulding County Carnegie Library Fail 41% 59%
Paulding Paulding County Carnegie Library Pass 50% 50%
Pemberville Pemberville Public Library Pass 60% 40%
Portsmouth Portsmouth Public Library Pass 70% 30%
Rock Creek Rock Creek Library Pass 63% 37%
Rockford Rockford Carnegie Library Pass 76% 24%
Sunbury Community Library Pass 65% 35%
Sycamore Mohawk Community Library Pass 69% 31%
Wayne Wayne Public Library Pass 42% 58%
West Jefferson Hurt-Batelle Memorial Library Pass 72% 28%
West Milton Milton Union Public Library Pass 70% 30%
Willowick Wiloughby-Eastlake Public Library Pass 69% 31%
Xenia Greene County Public Library Pass 59% 41%
Youngstown Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County Pass 59% 41%
Zanesville Muskingum County Library System Pass 67% 33%
Grants Pass Josephine County Library System Fail 46% 54%
Medford Jackson County Library Services Pass 54% 46%
Newport Lincoln County Library District Pass 70% 30%
Houston Chartiers-Houston Community Library Fail 33% 67%
Monroeville Monroeville Public Library Fail 16% 84%
Castle Rock Castle Rock Public Library Pass 66% 34%
Loon Lake Stevens County Rural Library District Fail 8% 52%
Ocean Shores Ocean Shores Public Library Pass 55% 45%
Charleston Kanawha County Public Library Pass 66% 34%
Chester, Weirton, New Cumberland Hancock County Public Libraries Pass 66% 34%
Romney Hampshire County Public Library Pass 66% 34%


Pass Fail Pass Fail
2014 33 73% 27% 147 81% 19%
2013 30 63% 37% 146 88% 12%
2011 18 44% 56% 96 88% 12%
2010 29 55% 45% 220 87% 13%
2009 28 54% 46% 123 84% 16%
2008 27 67% 33% 42 74% 26%
2007 46 74% 26% 29 69% 31%
2006 36 64% 36% 69 74% 26%
2005 48 52% 48% 57 60% 40%
2004 49 69% 31% 66 69% 31%
AVERAGE 34 62% 39% 100 77% 23%


Jacksonville Jacksonville Public Library Fail 49% 51%
Flanagan Flanagan Public Library Pass 63 37
Elgin Gail Borden Library District Fail 68 26
Rockport Rockport Public Library Fail 47 53
Freedom Township Manchester District Fail 39 61
Fulton Fulton Public Library Pass
Newfane Newfane Free Library Pass 57 43
Spokane Spokane County Library District Pass 59 41
Stanwood Stanwood Library Pass 79 21
Tumwater Timberland Regional Library Pass 82 18
SOURCE: LJ PUBLIC LIBRARY REFERENDA 2015; Library Governance includes referenda to create independent library districts, join or expand existing library districts, or become a part of a school district.


Sherwood Amy Sanders Library – Central Arkansas Library System Pass 55% 45%
Half Moon Bay Half Moon Bay Library Fail 48% 52%
Hayward Hayward Public Library Pass 68% 32%
Bonners Ferry Boundary County District Library Fail 24% 76%
Victor Valley of the Tetons District Library Pass 55% 45%
Lemont Lemont Public Library District Pass 56% 44%
Winfield Winfield Public Library Pass 81% 19%
Boxford Boxford Town Library Fail 60% 40%
Reading Reading Public Library Pass 56% 44%
Cape Elizabeth Thomas Memorial Library Pass 67% 33%
Falmouth Falmouth Memorial Library Pass 61% 39%
Belleville Belleville Area District Library Fail 38% 62%
Birmingham Baldwin Public Library Fail 24% 76%
Douglas Saugatuck-Douglas District Library Fail 38% 62%
Hartland Cromaine District Library Fail 50% 50%
Muskegon Hackley Public Library Pass 67% 33%
Columbia Heights Columbia Heights Public Library Pass 63% 37%
Jamestown James River Valley Library System Pass 52% 48%
Norfolk Norfolk Public Library Pass 52% 48%
Willard Huron County Community Library – Willard Branch Pass 56% 44%
Canby Canby Public Library Pass 70% 30%
Gladstone Gladstone Public Library Pass 56% 44%
Oregon City Oregon City Public Library Pass 68% 32%
Cranston Cranston Public Library Pass 78% 22%
Newport Newport Public Library Pass 76% 24%
Pawtucket Pawtucket Public Library Pass 67% 33%
Statewide State preservation grants Pass 61% 39%
Charleston Charleston County Public Library System Pass 74% 26%
Accomac Eastern Shore Public Library Fail 47% 53%
Sterling Sterling Library Pass 58% 39%
Camano Island Camano Island Library Pass 62% 38%
Spokane Spokane County Library District Fail 55% 45%
Buffalo Johnson County Library System Pass 54% 46%

John Chrastka, an LJ 2014 Mover & Shaker, is Founder and Executive Director of EveryLibrary, the first national political action committee for libraries. Rachel Korman, EveryLibrary’s 2014 Intern and a 2014 MLIS graduate of Drexel University’s College of Computing, has most recently been a Senior Circulation Assistant at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, Philadelphia.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.