From Non-Voters to New Voters | ALA Midwinter 2020

At a Saturday afternoon session at the American Library Association (ALA) 2020 Midwinter meeting, a panel of librarians and community partners offered strategies on voter engagement to a well-attended audience of public, school, academic, and state librarians

I Voted StickersAt a Saturday afternoon session at the American Library Association (ALA) 2020 Midwinter meeting, a panel of librarians and community partners, titled From Non-Voters to New Voters: How Libraries Can Engage Their Communities in the 2020 Elections and Beyond, offered strategies on voter engagement to a well-attended audience of public, school, academic, and state librarians. Sponsored by This session is presented by ALA's Public Policy and Advocacy Office and ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services, the panel was moderated by Nancy Kranich, Special Projects Librarian at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, who discussed historically low voter turnout, especially among people of color, in New Jersey in recent gubernatorial elections.

Kendra Cochran, Statewide Voter Engagement Coordinator at POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), continued by noting the disparities in the voting process, and emphasizing how people of color are more likely to be disenfranchised. In her work at POWER, Cochran aims to bring education and empowerment to black and brown communities, and give people the resources to see how voting affects their everyday life and how to hold elected officials accountable. 

ACCESS, NOT APATHY

Abby Kiesa, Director of Impact at CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement), which is part of Tufts University, provided an overview of the organization and its mission: increasing and diversifying young people's political engagement in the United States, and using research to close systematic gaps in voter engagement.

Libraries can play a role, according to Kiesa, in reaching young adults who are ignored by political campaigns and political parties. In particular, she mentioned libraries can reach young adults who are not on college campuses and others who may be prone to misinformation or believe that their vote doesn't matter. "Young people make up significant portions of communities and, as a result, deserve to be represented, especially young people from communities that historically have been marginalized," she continued." 

She emphasized that voting is a matter of access, not apathy, and that voting is habit-forming. "We know that when someone votes in one election, they’re more likely to vote continuously and be a lifelong voter. Focusing on young people and focusing on the most marginalized communities can transform our electorate and can transform our politics. But we have to make those investments in order for that to happen. We have to do this intentionally."

However, Kiesa acknowledged challenges, including institutional racism and negative experiences with government that could turn off potential voters. Kiesa concluded by describing CIRCLE's collaboration with YALSA, allowing younger voters to become their own storytellers. 

ENGAGEMENT & ENPOWERMENT

Maggie Bush, Programs and Outreach Director for the civil organization League of Women Voters, addressed how libraries can provide government documents, such as printed voted guides, along with information on voter registration. She reiterated that having access to information about who is on your ballot, and what laws have changed are key. "Not knowing how the process works is enough to keep people home." Their companion site, Vote411 also has more information.

Public libraries can help via programming, according to Jean Canosa Albano, Assistant Director for Public Services at Springfield (MA) City Library. She stated that some of their events—educational sessions about the electoral college, programs on running for office, meet-and-greets with candidates—are outside of the usual scope of what libraries do. To counter that, she advises incorporating civil engagement and empowerment into your library's mission plan to defend against pushback. While Springfield hasn't completely resolved the issue of low voter turnout, Albano has noticed progress among residents running for city council and school committees.

Lastly, Michelle Francis, Executive Director at the Ohio Library Council, reminded the audience that all types of libraries, from school to public to academic, should participate in National Voter Registration Day, September 22.

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Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

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