Guest post by Kristen Muthig, Communications and Policy Manager at Fair Elections Legal Network and Campus Vote Project.
Libraries are recognized as vital assets to communities, providing a wide range of services and facilitating learning for all the communities they serve. Another contributing factor to the health and quality of a community is a civic-minded population. The easiest way residents participate in this engagement is through casting a ballot, not just for president or statewide offices, but for local officials and issues. Positions like county commissioners, city council and school board, and issues that revise zoning codes, build new library buildings, or fund senior and transportation services impact a person’s everyday life. Unfortunately, many voters are unaware of these elections or uninterested and don’t participate so their voices are left unheard. As part of their mission to educate and inform, libraries can further contribute to their communities if they provide patrons with voting resources thereby encouraging them to participate.
Low voter turnout rates can be attributed to a lack of confidence in the electoral system, a lack of knowledge in the issues and candidates, or a feeling that one vote won’t make a difference. In the November 2014 general election, 64.6% of Americans reported they were registered to vote according to the U.S. Census. The national voter turnout rate was just over 36%, the lowest rates since World War II. Voter turnout in local, off-year elections like 2017 is normally even lower.
One barrier to voting that can be easily addressed is a lack of knowledge in the registration and voting process including deadlines, voter ID requirements, and options to cast a ballot. As trusted resources and sources of learning, libraries and librarians are naturally ideal providers of this information.
Adding voter assistance to an ever-expanding list of items librarians need to be versed in does not mean they have to be experts in election law. Resources already exist through local elections offices, secretaries of state, and state and national partners. For example, Campus Vote Project has state-specific voter guides (for students and non-students) that include deadlines, links to local forms and resources, voter ID requirements and answers to common questions. Libraries can help eliminate this barrier that often discourages people from the ballot box by including voting information in facilities and in regular communications in the months and days leading up to an election.
Action can be as simple as including a link to a registration form in a newsletter, to being a polling location on Election Day. Below are some examples of how libraries can help.
- 37 states and DC offer online voter registration. Posting a link on the library’s homepage, including it in newsletters, and sharing it on social media give patrons multiple opportunities to see the forms and fill them out before the registration deadline.
- Facilities could also temporarily dedicate a computer for online voter registration during the week leading up to the voter registration deadline
- Patrons should also know online voter registration also often allows voters who are already registered to check and update their address or other information.
- Absentee ballot applications or applications for a mail-in ballot are also available online through secretaries or state, local elections offices or this resource at U.S. Vote Foundation.
Newsletter and social media reminders
- Like most communications, for information to be remembered and acted upon, people need to hear it often and in a variety of ways.
- Social media and newsletters are easy ways to remind patrons of deadlines and online resources. For example, Cuyahoga County Public Library posted links to the secretary of state’s nonpartisan issue guide, online forms for voter registration, how to track your mailed absentee ballot, and an Election Day reminder with voting hours and a polling place locator link, as well as including voter information in their mid-October e-newsletter.
Work with local election officials to provide Election Day resources
- Facilities like schools, town halls, fire stations and libraries are often used as Election Day polling locations because of their accessibility.
- Each state and county may have different ways to set polling place locations but library systems can work with local election officials to see if making a library facility could be possible.
- Another way libraries could help with Election Day is offering meeting rooms for local election officials to host poll worker training sessions. Well trained poll workers help elections run smoothly.
Librarians and staff are valuable resources just like the books, classes, and online materials libraries provide. As such, they would be ideal messengers for information that drives more patrons to register and vote, and it would be yet another way libraries contribute to the vitality of communities and patrons they serve.
If you have questions or are looking for registration and voting resources please contact Campus Vote Project: firstname.lastname@example.org