Countdown to the Vote

Libraries ramp up engagement and outreach efforts for 2020

November 1, 2019

llustration: Drew Bardana
llustration: Drew Bardana

Libraries have traditionally had voter registration forms on hand and served as polling places. But as the next election cycle approaches, many libraries are kicking up their voter engagement and outreach in creative and thoughtful ways. Efforts include educating citizens about the practicalities of registering to vote and casting a ballot, connecting with marginalized communities, and even getting people on opposite political sides to have civil conversations in this polarized environment.

National Voter Registration Day

In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, hundreds of libraries participated in National Voter Registration Day (NVRD). Since 2012, the nonpartisan, unofficial holiday has been held on the fourth Tuesday of September with the aim of extending the franchise to eligible voters. Last year, libraries made up 14% of NVRD’s 4,087 partner groups, according to Caroline Mak, research coordinator of Nonprofit VOTE, which organizes the event. This year, the American Library Association (ALA) became a premiere partner of NVRD to encourage even more libraries to participate.

Van Alstyne (Tex.) Public Library (VAPL) expanded NVRD into a weeklong celebration in 2018, putting 100 registration cards into the hands of patrons in a city of about 3,000 people.

“We live in a rural community in north Texas,” says Judy Kimzey, director of VAPL. “I believe it’s impor­tant in today’s times of reactivity, [when] libraries are striving hard to battle fake news and help people understand what is reliable information and what isn’t. We’re on the front lines of that.”

In Texas, patrons get asked if they are registered to vote when they sign up for a library card, Kimzey says, a practice other libraries can emulate even if their state doesn’t require it. “Voter registration should be a part of library services,” she says. “Make it a part of your lexicon in your primary contact.”

Santa Clara County (Calif.) Library District (SCCLD) registered 144 new voters during its NVRD event last year, according to Gail Mason, SCCLD’s library services manager. “Besides the point of getting people to register, we also wanted to raise awareness of voting and the importance of registration.”

She emphasized that SCCLD made sure its efforts would not fall into the category of electioneering, or appearing to advocate for a specific party or candidate. By handing out a basic fact sheet, staffers also aimed to dispel some commonly held myths, such as that registration means automatic jury duty or that a person can’t register until after their 18th birthday.

Students and teachers participate in Mock Election Campaign Day at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 26, 2018. (Photo: Amanda Smithfield)
Students and teachers participate in Mock Election Campaign Day at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 26, 2018. Photo: Amanda Smithfield

Getting civil about civics

Busting myths was also the goal of Amanda Smithfield, a librarian at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, Tennessee, when she sought to engage the entire Hume-Fogg student body in civics.

“Libraries are the most democratic places,” she says. “We look around and see a lot of polarization. Libraries can be foundational places to deal with that. We serve everyone. We don’t check political ideology at the entrance. We’re almost like democracy coaches—we show people how to do democracy.”

To that end, Smithfield started clubs for the school’s Democrats and Republicans and created a program called ProjectCiv to encourage students to become informed and participate in civil discourse. Through readings and structured monthly discussion groups, students debate subjects like marijuana legalization, the #MeToo movement, and affirmative action.

ProjectCiv participants also created a nonpartisan election guide on topics of interest to youth, such as college costs, immigration, LGBT issues, and school safety and conducted a mock election for all students. In order to make sure all 47 eligible students who would turn 18 before the 2018 midterm elections would be able to vote, Smithfield helped them preregister.

Besides hosting debates or a mock election, she recommends inviting local politicians—who love opportunities to take photos with local youth—to visit your library to help generate interest around voting.

As another way to help libraries reach teen patrons, ALA has partnered with Democracy Class, a project of the nonprofit Rock the Vote. Democracy Class is a free, nonpartisan curriculum for high-school-aged students about the importance and history of voting; participants can also register or preregister to vote. The curriculum includes a webinar for instructors and librarians implementing the program, “Voting and Voices: Engaging Students and Families in Democracy,” that covers state-specific guides for registration drives, strategies to reduce political polarization in the classroom, and tips for encouraging civil discourse.

Engagement in and out of the library

“Here in Sacramento we are very involved with voting efforts in our community and are a strong partner with the registrar,” says Cathy Crosthwaite, community engagement manager at Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library (SPL). “All of our libraries are open all day long for voting [on election day],” she says, adding that staff members depend on a legion of volunteers.

Sacramento County was one of the first to implement the California Voter’s Choice Act in which residents can vote by mail, vote as early as 28 days before the election, and turn in their ballots at any designated location in their county. All 28 SPL locations serve as ballot drop-off centers, and every staff member is certified to handle ballots.

Even with the vote-by-mail option available, residents still saw libraries as their election hub—libraries collected more than half the ballots of Sacramento County’s polling places in 2018, Crosthwaite says. “This year we plan on being able to collect ballots on our bookmobile routes,” she adds. The bookmobile option will allow SPL to reach seniors, shelter residents, or affordable housing community residents who may not make it to the branch locations.

Reaching the hard-to-reach

Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library (KCPL) has voter registrars on its staff who can help patrons in each of its 10 locations throughout the year. Jenny Garmon, KCPL’s legal and government information specialist, made a focused effort to reach voters with disabilities last year. During National Disability Voter Registration Week (held the third week of July each year), KCPL partnered with the Kansas City Election Board, the League of Women Voters, and the local nonprofit Whole Person to host three events at different branches showcasing accessible voting equipment.

To test the equipment, patrons could cast a mock ballot that included lighthearted questions about dogs and leisure activities, and organizers provided information about the accommodations voters with disabilities can request on election day. The events attracted about 30 people, which was fewer than organizers hoped but represented a launching point for future collaborations between the two organizations. “That might be one of my favorite parts about it—creating these relationships,” Garmon says. The plan is to take efforts out into the community next year.

“Things don’t have to be at the library to engage with patrons,” she advises. “Work with the community where they are—don’t expect them to come to you.”


Deborah Doyle talks with California State Sen. Mark McGuire about funding, programming, and new technology at Healdsburg Regional Library. (Photo: Ray Holley/Sonoma County Library)

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