Referenda Roundup 2023: Campaign Stories

Lessons learned from local elections

January 2, 2024

Farmers for Libraries sign in support of Columbia County Rural Library District
A yard sign developed by Neighbors United for Progress in support of Columbia County (Wash.) Rural Library District is displayed by a resident.

In last year’s Referenda Roundup, American Libraries noted the growing trend of organized groups of voters fighting library levies due to those groups’ opposition to libraries carrying materials by and about LGBTQ people. The primary and general election cycles—as well as 2023’s special elections—demonstrate that politically driven opponents continue to threaten the library’s existence, especially in smaller, rural areas.

Overall, library measures across the US continue to pass at a high rate. However, in many communities, the discourse over what materials can be held in certain sections of their libraries has escalated to people introducing ballot measures seeking to defund, shut down, or weaken the library’s authority. Tried and true campaign messaging, like touting a library’s return on investment, has been supplanted by issues of free speech and censorship. Razor-thin margins determined the future of many libraries this past year.

One constant is the support from Friends groups, foundations, volunteers, and advocates at the core of successful campaigns. Many libraries are also seeking the support of strategists and legal counsel to navigate these unprecedented times.

Jump to individual stories:

Defunding measure has day in court instead of the polls

Columbia County (Wash.) Rural Library District
Population served: 4,042
Referendum details: Dissolve the library district
Result: Blocked from ballot in court

An effort to dissolve Columbia County (Wash.) Rural Library District (CCRLD) was decided in court rather than at the ballot box, because of a lawsuit filed by the local political action committee Neighbors United for Progress (NUP). Columbia County Superior Court Commissioner Julie Karl blocked the proposed dissolution measure after finding evidence of fraud in the petitioning process and unconstitutionality in the dissolution process.

The single-location library is in the city of Dayton, Washington, but it provides services to the entire county of about 4,000 people. In recent years, CCRLD has faced book challenges, particularly against those with LGBTQ+ content, as well as challenges against its value as a tax-funded entity.

Jessica Ruffcorn, a resident of the library district and mother of two, started a petition to place the dissolution measure on the upcoming ballot. By state law, Ruffcorn needed signatures from 10% of voters from the county’s unincorporated areas to put the measure on the ballot. This meant Dayton residents were not included in the signature collection and would not have been allowed to vote in the referendum.

After NUP Chair Elise Severe enlisted help from an attorney, two issues with the proposed measure quickly came to light. First, the measure had been misrepresented. Five petitioners came forward (anonymously out of fear of retaliation) and stated they thought the petition was for moving or removing challenged library books, not dissolving the library entirely.

Second, while Ruffcorn ultimately collected more signatures for the petition to compensate for those ruled invalid, Severe’s lawyer also argued the measure itself would be unconstitutional. Under the current voting model, only voters in the unincorporated part of the county would be allowed to vote on the measure, even though CCRLD also serves—and is physically located in—Dayton, where three-quarters of county residents live and pay taxes to support the library. In her ruling, Karl sided with NUP, saying, “We did away with taxation without representation a long time ago.”

Severe and Lorna Barth, president of Friends of the Dayton Memorial Library, credit their partnership and combined resources for the victory. Barth notes that in addition to Severe’s intellect and drive, the optics of one young mother countering the narrative led by another young mother are important. Severe agrees, adding that similar campaigns need to gear their messaging toward conservative viewpoints. “It’s never easy to counter their narrative,” Severe says. “They say, ‘We’re saving our children.’ And as a mother, I said, ‘Enough is enough. You won’t tell me how to raise my children.’”

Barth suspects the fight over books was a red herring. “It really was a hope to dissolve [CCRLD] and put the library back into the control of the city where it could be run by volunteers and staff chosen by the city council,” she says, adding that she thinks the city council does not have the budget, staff, or plans to adequately take care of the library.

The Washington State Legislature is currently considering raising voter petition thresholds for rural library measures to 25% or greater. The deputy secretary of state is also seeking to include public libraries in existing nondiscrimination legislation to make it easier for groups like NUP to challenge discriminatory actions like the removal of books.

Library retains its autonomy

Ad placed by Vote No to Save Our Library
Vote No to Save Our Library ran a full-page ad in the Town Crier (Pella, Iowa) to counter opposition.

Pella (Iowa) Public Library
Population served: 10,500
Referendum details: Would have stripped authority over library budgets, hiring, and collection development from the library board and given it to the city council
Result: Failed, 2,042–1,954

If passed, Resolution 6442 would have transferred governing power over Pella (Iowa) Public Library (PPL) from the library board of trustees to the city council. “Taken at face value, it didn’t look so problematic,” says Anne McCullough Kelly, chair of Vote No to Save Our Library, a committee formed to oppose the measure. “It was the implication.”

The implication, McCullough Kelly says, was clear: The development of the library collection would be turned over to the city council, who would be more receptive to removing books from the collection than the board. PPL operates independently from the city in many regards. Its board has control over the budget, the employment of the director, and the curation of the library collection. After an unsuccessful challenge to the frequently targeted book Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe in late 2021, a petition requesting the resolution be voted on at the next city election was submitted to the city clerk in May 2022.

The resolution garnered national attention, with news stories appearing on CBS, Yahoo News, and a profile in The New York Times. Anne Petrie, a member of Vote No, says the national attention did little to affect the contentious local politics.

By midsummer, Vote No was responding to opposition from three political action committees. Petrie says those groups used the same basic message: “Children are in danger because of literature with sexual themes and images.”

To counter this, Vote No canvassed, developed messaging, ran ads, and raised money for their campaign. Independent voters, Petrie says, were the deciding votes. Petrie and McCullough Kelly attribute their success to a campaign that focused on stating facts rather than relying on political party affiliation.

“One of the biggest challenges was telling people that ‘vote no’ is a good thing,” Petrie adds, noting that she fielded clarifications up until election night. In November, the resolution failed by 97 votes and the library remained an independent entity.

A master plan pays off

Great Falls (Mont.) Public Library
Population served: 84,000
Referendum details: Increased levy from 2 mills to 17 mills
Result: Passed, 7,223–6,604

Since a 2014 funding reduction, Great Falls (Mont.) Public Library (GFPL) has struggled to stay open 50 hours per week. That 50-hour standard—set by Montana State Library—is required of the state’s public libraries that serve communities larger than 25,000. Failing to meet this threshold would make the library ineligible for state library assistance of about $30,000 annually.

GFPL serves 84,000 residents in the nearly 3,000-square-mile Cascade County from a single location. In 2023, the library asked voters for a levy to supplement city and county funding to help close financial shortfalls and meet the demand for services. The measure passed with 52% of the vote during a June special election, which will raise nearly $1.6 million annually, although Great Falls will discontinue a yearly contribution to the library, so the library’s budget will see a net increase of about $1.2 million.

The timing was meant to avoid staff layoffs and stave off the loss in financial support from the state, according to GFPL Director Susie McIntyre. Had the levy failed, the library would have been forced to reduce its hours, putting it beneath the 50-hour threshold. With the levy’s passage, the library plans to expand from 18 to 35 employees by the end of 2024.

“We knew it would be close,” McIntyre says of GFPL’s win. She credits the victory to planning, fundraising, and its overall disciplined approach, which entailed a master plan initiated one year before election day and strict adherence to its messaging. Also key, she says, was the coordination of GFPL’s Friends of the Library, Great Falls Public Library Foundation (GFPLF), and the library itself. For example, in the year leading up to the summer election, GFPLF provided funding to conduct focus groups and polling, which provided the ballot initiative committee with messaging for TV spots and mailers. One surprising takeaway, McIntyre notes, was that intellectual freedom was a more persuasive argument than fiscal concerns. “We said the library was protecting the right to read and think,” she says, reciting what has become a common talking point for her.

Talking points were specifically developed with opposition in mind. They included: access to reading and resources improve quality of life for everyone; libraries advocate for everyone’s right to read and think; libraries are needed to ensure access to educational materials for people who cannot afford to buy books or don’t have internet access; libraries need support to support their communities; and libraries are critical safe spaces and learning environments for children. As the special election date approached, the levy faced organized opposition from local conservative group Liberty and Values MT, which advertised against the levy on two billboards and through its Facebook page.

In a petition for injunction filed by GFPL’s lawyer in district court in May, GFPL’s board of trustees alleged that county elections office volunteers distributed antilibrary materials in April while on duty. The coordination of resources and support once again played a critical role as GFPLF secured an attorney who, in turn, successfully requested that the court appoint an election monitor, given issues raised of possible irregularities. The election process then unfolded without further contest, with the measure securing enough votes to pass.

Defeat, not failure

Roselle (Ill.) Public Library District
Population served: 22,744
Referendum details: $22 million bond to construct a new library
Result: Failed, 1,476–1,456

Voters in Roselle, Illinois, narrowly rejected a $22 million bond that would have funded the construction of a new library building for Roselle Public Library District’s (RPLD) nearly 23,000 residents.

In 2018 and 2021, RPLD conducted public sessions and community surveys on the library’s needs and support. Executive Director Samantha Johnson says this research indicated that residents consider the library building “dark, uninviting, and outdated,” especially when compared with nearby libraries. The library board unanimously decided to move forward with “a modern and highly functional library to meet current and future needs of adults and children alike.”

Heading into the April 4 election, polling data showed voters evenly split. The measure was ultimately defeated by 22 votes. Organized opposition to the levy was minimal and largely contained to Facebook groups in which the levy was specifically addressed.

“We don’t consider the referendum defeat to be a failure,” Johnson says. “Leaders in the community made a point to say to us that such a close outcome on the first attempt was something to look at positively in Roselle.”

Johnson attributes the bond defeat to the proposed design of the library. A preelection survey showed 8% of respondents expressing dislike for it, asking questions about the building’s aesthetics, cost, and place within the community. “I think we were hearing that we didn’t engage enough with our community before finalizing the concept that was used for the referendum,” Johnson says.

Since the election, RPLD has continued to hold focus groups and started Coffee with the Library Board events where residents can meet with library trustees to discuss community concerns. The board is using these open-ended conversations to better understand the wants and needs of the community.

Campaigning by the numbers

Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Ohio) Public Library
Population served: 825,000
Referendum details: Renewed and increased levy from 1 to 1.5 mills for 10 years
Result: Passed, 156,797–120,590

On November 7, Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Ohio) Public Library (CHCPL) passed a 1.5 mill, 10-year levy with 57% of the vote. While the margin of victory is impressive, many other important factors added up to a successful campaign, CHCPL’s second in five years.

In 2018, the public approved a $19 million levy with 63% of the vote. That money funded a master plan that included building repairs and improvements for CHCPL’s 41 locations. At the time, 10 locations were 85 years old or older, and three were not ADA compliant.

Library administrators sought the 2023 levy to renew a levy from 2013 and increase the rate from its previous 1 mill. The increase would provide funding to see the renovations through and compensate for rising expenses, particularly related to aging buildings and digital materials, in the face of declining state support. As with all public libraries in Ohio, CHCPL receives a share of the state’s Public Library Fund. Since the 2009 recession, the fund has declined from 2.2% of the state’s general budget to 1.7%. In the intervening years, many Ohio libraries have sought local levies for continued financial support.

CHCPL director Paula Brehm-Heeger credits an “outward focus” campaign for the levy’s passage. “We started 18 months ago,” she says, adding, “You have to talk to people.”

Over the course of those 18 months, Brehm-Heeger gave 24 public presentations on CHCPL’s master plan. Leading up to the election, she met weekly with the library board to develop a consistent message they could use to educate voters. The core elements of this message were the need to continue building improvements and the incredible popularity of digital materials available through the library. Wait times for digital items were outpacing physical materials, much to the confusion of the public.

Explaining how digital material licensing for libraries works, and how it affects wait times, was the central challenge, Brehm-Heeger says. Increasing access would require buying more licenses, which costs more money. “Once we were able to emphasize the licensing element, we were able to show what we were up against,” she says.

A local news story explained the cost differential using a popular Stephen King title and clarified the prices for paperback ($17), ebook ($64.99), and audiobook ($99) versions. That explanation also calculated a $2 million cost to bring the wait times of digital materials in line with their physical counterparts. The message, Brehm-Heeger says, “landed” with voters.

As the public became more well-informed of CHCPL’s finances, the Friends of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and the Library Foundation of Cincinnati and Hamilton County formed a team of volunteers and hired a professional strategist. With surveys showing strong support for CHCPL, the groups focused on getting out the vote, Brehm-Heeger says. However, opposition came from Cincinnati’s chamber of commerce, which issued a statement praising the library’s literacy efforts before stating it would not support higher property taxes.

In the three months leading up to the election, volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, phone banked, and sent 6,000 handwritten postcards to eligible voters. On election day, volunteers stood outside the boundaries of polling sites and passed out information about the levy, which Brehm-Heeger calls a “pivotal role” in making a last-minute case for the levy. The combined efforts of the board, foundation, Friends, and volunteers led to a victory at the ballot box.

Turning a private library public

Billboard that reads Vote Yes on Aug. 8! Support a Public Library for Taney County
A billboard encouraging votes in favor of publicly funding Taneyhills Library.

Taneyhills Library, Branson, Missouri
Population served: 40,000
Referendum details: Established a publicly funded library district with a 1.8 mill levy
Result: Passed, 2,366–2,320

For most of its 90-year existence, Taneyhills Library (TL) in Branson, Missouri, has been privately funded, deriving $187,000 of its revenue from sales at an onsite used book and thrift store.

In 1975, TL served 5,000 people, and the 20,000-square-foot, volunteer-run facility that contains both the library and the store was adequate. In recent years, TL’s service area has grown to more than 40,000 as Branson has developed as a tourist destination over the past few decades, and existing fundraising is no longer sufficient to support operations and the community’s needs. A ballot measure to create a new publicly funded library district passed in August by 46 votes.

This was not TL’s first attempt to become a public entity. In 2013, a proposed 1.5 mill levy failed, gaining only 35% of the vote. Two years after the failed campaign, TL received a $350,000 grant from the local Stanley & Elaine Ball Foundation to renovate the children’s area and upgrade technology.

“We wanted to show the community that the library was not a warehouse of dusty books but [a] destination zone for children,” says Director Marcia Schemper-Carlock. “It clearly became the catalyst we needed.” For the next eight years, TL worked to demonstrate its value to the community before preparing to go back to the ballot box.

Schemper-Carlock says having a properly funded campaign team with deep connections to the community, including a former Branson mayor, a retired school communications director, and a political marketing expert, helped secure the levy’s passage. Before the campaign, TL enlisted the help of consultants who identified the school districts in Branson and nearby Hollister as 80% of their voter base. TL’s board also unanimously agreed that if the levy failed, lack of funds would force a permanent closure at the end of 2023. The prospect of shuttering became part of the campaign messaging.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, opponents—whom Schemper-Carlock calls “social media arsonists”—began posting regularly on their Vote No for Public Funding for Taney County Library Facebook pages, including incorrect information about the library’s so-called political agenda and the proposed tax hike. The levy committee was ready. “We turned our campaign cavalry loose, and they responded with facts,” she says, referring to more than 30 community members who patrolled social media to correct misinformation.

The measure narrowly prevailed, and with the levy in place, the library board plans to increase staffing from three full-time employees and a part-time director to seven full-time and three part-time employees, including a full-time director, in 2024.

Updated: Jan. 4, 2024 to correct the spelling of Elise Severe’s name.


Referenda Roundup 2022

Referenda Roundup 2022: Final Report

How states performed on library ballot measures

Referenda Roundup 2021

Referenda Roundup 2021: Final Report

How states performed on library measures