2022 Library Elections: Mostly Positive but Low Ballot Showing

Much like the races for the House, Senate, and state leadership, the 2022 midterm elections were a mixed bag for libraries. Most library ballot questions succeeded: As of November 10, more than 70 percent of the more than 55 tracked by library PAC EveryLibrary passed. There were not, however, as many races to watch. This year saw fewer than 60 measures on the ballot, the lowest number in any midterm election in a generation.

roll of voting stickers in English and SpanishMuch like the races for the House, Senate, and state leadership, the 2022 midterm elections were a mixed bag for libraries. Most library ballot questions succeeded: As of November 10, more than 70 percent of the more than 55 tracked by library PAC EveryLibrary passed.

There were not, however, as many races to watch. This year saw fewer than 60 measures on the ballot, the lowest number in any midterm election in a generation, according to EveryLibrary Executive Director John Chrastka, who recalls midterms with up to 120 libraries on the ballot. The low showing reflect both internal and external constraints, he suggested, such as planning slowdowns caused by the pandemic, or an overabundance of caution when considering taking initiatives to the polls.

“We’re concerned if library leadership around the country is playing a wait-and-see game,” Chrastka told LJ. “The need to go out for appropriate and necessary funding increases to address things like inflation and wage compression is very important. Likewise, a building project delayed is perhaps a building project denied.”

What troubles him most, he added, was the mobilization of pro-censorship groups around ballot measures to defund libraries—some of which will have serious repercussions.

 

OPPOSITION GROUPS SWAY VOTERS

Not every ballot question win was a win for libraries. Several measures represented initiatives driven by community groups objecting to library content, particularly LGBTQIA+ and anti-racism materials.

In one of the most notable upsets, the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library (CCJPL), AR, saw the passage of two measures to defund the library by 50 percent—one at the town level, one at the county. A group of Tea Party–backed citizens objecting to books and materials with LGBTQIA+ themes mounted an 18-month initiative; CCJPL’s Save Our Libraries campaign was unable to overcome the conservative group’s accusations that the library’s funding requests were excessive. Tax revenue will now be cut from two mills to one.

CCJPL was not the only library budget that fell to “Vote No” campaigns with anti-LGBTQIA+ platforms. In Jamestown County, MI, voters rejected a levy renewal increase for the Patmos Library, its second defeat in four months. Despite a renewed informational campaign on the library’s part, the millage renewal failed by 55.8 percent to 44.2 percent. A GoFundMe effort mounted in August has brought in more than $260,000—however, that money cannot keep the library operating sustainably, and board members will be meeting this week to decide how to proceed.

An advisory referendum for Glen Carbon Centennial Library in southern Illinois (LJ ’s 2010 Best Small Library in America) asked voters, “Shall tax-supported libraries and schools promote drag queen events to minors?” More than two thirds answered “no,” and while the referendum is non-binding, it’s a strong indicator of the community’s opinions.

However, at least two libraries overcame pro-censorship opposition groups. Despite local protests over the memoir Gender Queer, the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library in West Virginia passed a last-chance ballot renewing the levy that expires in June 2023, as well as approving bonds for the construction of a new library, renovation of an existing branch, and general operations. And, while not part of the midterm election cycle, in October the Ketchikan Public Library, AK, defeated a ballot proposition that would have removed borough funding for the library driven by a group of parents objecting to its LGBTQIA+ content.

 

BIG WINS

There were some major successes to celebrate as well, including in a number of large urban districts.

In Colorado, voters in Boulder approved the formation of the nation’s newest library district, changing Boulder Public Library from a city library to a self-governing one. Denver Public Library passed a 1.5 mil increase to property taxes that will generate $36 million annually. (Colorado’s South Routt Library District’s revenue authorization ballot passed with an overwhelming 80 percent approval, but the John C. Fremont Library’s operating levy increase failed.)

San Francisco voted for Measure F, which will continue the Library Preservation Fund charter through 2048. Houston invested in funding for construction with the passage of Proposition F, a $26 million public improvement bond.

Smaller municipalities did well too; Belmont, MA, voters approved a $39 million debt extension for new construction, and in Swansea, MA, passed a $19 million bond at its annual Town Hall meeting earlier in the week. The Manchester Public Library, CT, saw $39 million approved for a new, larger facility.

 

STATEWIDE SHOWINGS

The majority of library ballots went before voters in Ohio and in Michigan, where levy sunsets require funding to be regularly reauthorized.

Continuing the state’s legacy of strong library support at election time, Ohio voters approved 18 out of 19 measures. The Toledo–Lucas County Library saw success with Issue 11, the renewal of a 3.7 mill, five-year operating levy. However, the importance of getting every community member out to support their library was driven home by Cardington-Lincoln Public Library in Morrow County, the only Ohio library that did not pass its measure. The one mill, five-year levy failed by only 16 votes.

And although she ran a strong campaign for Ohio’s 99th District, Conneaut Public Library Executive Director Kathy Zappitello lost to incumbent Sarah Fowler Arthur (R-Ashtabula). Zappitello joined the race late, after the previous democratic candidate was disqualified because of redistricting; her platform opposed Ohio’s HB 327, introduced by her opponent, which “prohibits the promotion, teaching, and training of ‘divisive concepts’” in K–12 schools and higher education institutions.

Most Michigan libraries fared better than Patmos. Chikaming Township voters approved funding for three libraries, the Hudson Carnegie District Library renewed its levy, and the Harrison Township Library expanded theirs. The Lyon Township Library passed a $12.8 million bond for a new branch after failing to do so in 2018.

But a measure for the Ionia Community Library failed for the sixth time since 2005. An attempt in August was defeated by only 36 votes, but the same proposal, which sought .98 mills for 18 years to fund a new library, failed by 1,064 votes this time. A measure asking for an additional one mill for 15 years for Michigan’s Chesterfield Township Library, which also hoped to finance a new library was defeated by more than 60 percent.

Oregon saw mixed results: Salem approved $7.5 million for two mixed-use library and affordable housing projects. But in Keizer, a $2.50 fee for the library tacked onto the city’s water bill that would have transitioned the Keizer Community Library from a small, volunteer-run organization to a full-service public library failed, with 45 percent of the vote.

New Mexico’s biennial statewide General Obligation (GO) Bond, which funds state aid for public, academic, school, and tribal libraries, passed with over 62 percent of voter support. The bond’s authorized amount was increased by New Mexico legislature from $9 million to over $19 million following a successful campaign by library stakeholders.

 

BE PROACTIVE, BE VIGILANT

While results for funding renewals, building projects, and district measures were largely positive, Chrastka emphasizes the need to be proactive around funding issues. Despite planning processes hampered by pandemic shutdowns and shortfalls, “It’s time for us to get back to planning to ask our voters and neighbors for the real funding that we need,” he said. “We have to be ready to engage our voters with our vision and our hopes.”

Libraries must also be vigilant about messages being spread by opposition groups. “The rules around censorship and direct attacks on library funding are still being written, and they’re being written by the book banners and censors,” said Chrastka. He’s already watching a 2023 ballot measure in Pella, IA, that would remove its board of trustees and place control of the library directly under City Council—an initiative that began with a challenge over Gender Queer earlier this year.

Advocacy works, he added, but only when libraries work to get their message out. “Every campaign has to be engaging our voters and stakeholders about our value system as libraries, and our vision for how we want to put that to work.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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