Libraries on the Ballot | Referenda 2020

Despite partisan clashes, the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic headwinds, voters largely came through for public libraries in 2020.

graphic of blue voting box with red top, paper half inserted with check markDespite partisan clashes, the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic headwinds, voters largely came through for public libraries in 2020

Last year U.S. public libraries went to voters for tax levies, renewals, bonds, and other funding and governance ballot initiatives. Of the 170 sampled here, 100 elections were held prior to November 2020, and 67 took place during the general election. Only 20 were for building improvements or construction; the rest were for operating and governance. Of those on November 3, only eight failed, for a 12 percent loss rate. Throughout the rest of the year there were at least 103 library initiatives and 11 of those failed as well, for an 11 percent loss rate.

There were a lot of concerns about the level of uncertainty going into the 2020 general election. It is satisfying to note that despite the rancor around the presidential and congressional elections, and in the midst of a pandemic, the public has generally come out in support for libraries in the United States. This year’s ballot measures proved that the majority of voters in towns, cities, and counties—in both red states and blue states—support smart taxes for their local libraries.

This year’s election results were not far from average when compared to previous years. During the Trump administration we saw a slight bump in the percentage of wins, due largely to Trump’s attacks on libraries and anti-Trump turnout at the polls. For example, in 2017, the year after Trump threatened federal funding for libraries in his proposed budget, we saw referenda for operating budgets reach an all-time high passage rate of 98 percent. Building referenda were up to 72 percent passage rates (building referenda consistently do worse than operating budgets).



Ballotpedia tracked 120 statewide initiatives and called 89 as approved and 31 as defeated, meaning that libraries, on the whole, did better than statewide ballot initiatives across the country. Those state-level wins included the biennial “GOBond for Libraries” in New Mexico, which passed with 66 percent of the vote. This $9.7 million bond provides funding to public, academic, school, and tribal library operations and facilities. In Arizona voters embraced Prop 208, the statewide Invest in Education Act, which will positively impact school librarian jobs in the state. However, in California, Prop 15, which would have raised anywhere from $10.3 billion to $12.6 billion annually by allowing an increase in corporate property tax rates, failed. This initiative would have funded cities, counties, and schools, which would have meant more funding for libraries as well.

Colorado repealed the Gallagher Amendment by passing Amendment B. This will allow libraries (among other local governmental entities) to set their own annual adjustments to their tax rates without having to go to the voters to “de-gallagherize” themselves first. The Gallagher Amendment, passed in 1982, was designed to maintain a constant ratio between the property tax revenue from residential property and from business property, but it also caused a 75 percent decline in property tax revenue since 1982 and reduced funding for local public services such as libraries.



Buda  Mason Memorial Library District PASS 75 25
Calumet Park Calumet Park Public Library FAIL 33 67
Platte County Columbus Public Library FAIL 33 67
NEW YORK        
Massena Massena Public Library FAIL 35 65

SOURCE: LJ PUBLIC LIBRARY REFERENDA 2020; Library Governance includes referenda to create independent library districts, join or expand existing library districts, or become a part of a school district. Library Governance also includes referenda to dissolve or withdraw from existing library districts.



Unfortunately, there are no comprehensive national resources or data sources available for local measures, and that makes it very difficult to look at comparison models between libraries and other issues. But early analysis by EveryLibrary, the nationwide library funding PAC, suggests that more voters focused their votes on presidential and state-level politics this year than previous presidential elections and skipped voting for local initiatives. That may have given progressive-leaning ballot initiatives an edge.

Typically, we include analysis about which kinds of initiatives fared better or worse, but this year’s failed initiatives are broadly and equally spread across operating budgets, buildings, and governance as well as renewals and increases in funding. It doesn’t appear that there were any significant or notable trends among the initiatives that passed, either.

Notable results from Election Day 2020 include:

  • In Oregon, voters approved Measure 26-211 for the Multnomah County Library. This $387 million bond will finance library renovations by imposing a property tax of $61 per $100,000 of assessed value to repay the bonds. The Deschutes Public Library District likewise passed a $195 million construction bond by a large margin. In Eugene, the voters renewed their library’s $2.85 million operating budget. EveryLibrary provided direct assistance to the Libraries for Everyone Committee there.
  • Voters across Ohio voted to renew all the local library levies but one. In Cuyahoga County, voters agreed to a new 1-mill tax increase which will raise an additional $18 million per year for library operations, preventing significant cuts to programs, building maintenance, and the budget for books and other materials. Unfortunately, voters in Portage County again rejected a proposal to establish a new local levy for the library district.
  • Hampshire County, WV, ultimately approved reestablishment of the core funding levy for the library, 67 percent to 33 percent. The tax, which was first established in 1987, had failed to be renewed on the spring 2020 ballot. In Taylor County, WV, fully 88 percent of the voters said yes to renewing their county library’s operating levy.
  • Voters in historic Woodstock, NY, rejected a measure to replace their library with a new building by just 34 votes.
  • In Antioch, IL, voters defeated a proposal to repair, improve, and enhance their library building.
  • In the town of Castle Rock, WA, voters rejected an initiative to reinstate the library’s basic operating levy by a two percent margin. The levy would have set a rate of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to raise about $91,500 for the library. Sadly, Library Director Vicki Selander said it is likely the library will close.



Anchorage Anchorage Public Library PASS 56 44
Coventry Booth & Dimock Memorial Library PASS 50.2 49.8
Antioch Antioch Public Library District FAIL 49 51
Riverside Riverside Public Library PASS 73 27
Largo Prince George’s County  PASS 87 13
Memphis St. Clair County Library System Memorial Library System PASS 54 46
Mount Mount Clemens Public Library PASS 61 39
Oxford Oxford Public Library FAIL 49.6 50.4
Columbus Columbus Public Library PASS 62 38
NEW MEXICO        
Statewide New Mexico GO Bond  PASS 66 34
NEW YORK        
Glen Head Gold Coast Public Library PASS 72 28
Oceanside Oceanside Library PASS 55 45
Woodstock Woodstock Library   FAIL 49.6 50.4
Amherst Amherst Public Library PASS 62 38
Bend Deschutes Public Library District PASS 52 48
Portland Multnomah County Library PASS 60 40
Jamestown Jamestown Philomenian Library PASS 77 23
Narragansett Maury Loontjens Memorial Library PASS 67 33
Vienna Fairfax County Public Library PASS 66 34
Dodgeville Dodgeville Public Library PASS 52 48




The next few years will be very interesting, with the loss of a strong adversary to library funding and potential for a favorable political environment for libraries at the federal level. Paradoxically, this could mean that we start to see libraries lose at the local level. What we saw over the last few years was that organizations on both the left and the right that were anti-Trump often saw an increase in donations, volunteers, and support. This typically happens in politics: the incumbent and the causes or political issues aligned with them see fewer campaign contributions or cause related donations, lower voter turnout, and less overall political action, while the insurgent and their related causes and issues see an increase in political activity, donations, and higher voter turnouts.

Voters who are against taxes, government, and education are still there. While nonpartisan, libraries are, of course, tax-funded government organizations and often have a progressive culture. Our fear is that disillusioned Trump supporters will turn on local tax-funded government institutions, as we’ve seen in a few communities, where local elected library boards were taken over by hostile insurgents who began to cut library funding from the inside.

Also, according to OCLC’s “From Awareness to Funding” report, libraries lost almost 20 percent of voter support from 2008-18. Right now, we believe that around 42–45 percent of voters oppose increases in taxes for libraries. If this decline in voter support continues, then in just a few years libraries will have dropped below the 50 percent voter support margin that is required to win in most states. If that happens, we’ll begin to see a huge decline in library funding across the country as more libraries lose at the ballot box and local elected legislators no longer feel the need to support libraries.

Unfortunately, libraries are not confronting this trend. Our industry’s advocacy strategies still largely revolve around outdated methodologies and ideologies. For example, the field continues to operate under the outdated premise that library use causes or increases library support. OCLC’s 2018 report “Public Libraries: Marketing and Communications Landscape” found that libraries were spending the bulk of their marketing budgets on increasing awareness and use. But national surveys such as “Awareness to Funding” and our own analysis of local political polling shows no correlation between library use and support at the ballot box. In fact, many people who use the library do not support taxes or government. On the other hand, many people who don’t use libraries personally nonetheless vote for them, because libraries achieve outcomes that align with their values.

If we want to reverse this trend, we must shift our focus from increasing awareness and library use to more data-driven and persuasive arguments around the benefits of paying taxes for a government organization such as the public library. The necessary shift can only be done with large scale public opinion polls and focus groups to determine what it is that the public wants to hear about libraries in order to be willing to fund them. The data from this process helps organizations understand how to segment the American public into audiences and talk to each audience in a way that matters to them. In the face of widespread anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric, we need to learn more about our voters and what it is that would motivate them to vote for libraries.





South Pasadena South Pasadena Public Library PASS 76 24
Woodland Woodland Public Library PASS 64 36
Woodland Woodland Public Library PASS 60 40
Blackhawk Gilpin County Public Library  PASS 65 35
Marietta Cobb County Public Library System PASS 66 34
Waycross Waycross-Ware County Public Library FAIL 48 52
Elgin Gail Borden Public Library District PASS 63 37
New Lenox New Lenox Public Library PASS 57 43
Streator Streator Public Library PASS 60 40
Columbia Caldwell Parish Library PASS 70 30
Destrehan St. Charles Parish Library PASS 66 34
Franklin St. Mary Parish Library PASS 69 31
Gonzales Ascension Parish Library PASS 67 33
Ruston Lincoln Parish Library FAIL 43 57
St. Martinville St. Martin Parish Library PASS 54 46
Sunset South St. Landry Community Library PASS 80 20
Buckfield Zadoc Long Free Library FAIL 47 53
New Gloucester New Gloucester Public Library FAIL 37 64
Alba Chestonia Township Library PASS 66 34
Atlanta Montmorency County Public Libraries PASS 61 39
Barryton Barryton Public Library PASS 71 29
Bay City Bay County Library System PASS 66 34
Beverly Hills Baldwin Public Library PASS 69 31
Bloomfield Hills Baldwin Public Library  PASS 67 33
Brown City Brown City Public Library PASS 80 20
Buchanan Buchanan District Library PASS 73 27
Cadillac Cadillac Wexford Public Library  PASS 71 29
Caro Caro Area District Library PASS 78 22
Centreville Nottawa Township Library PASS 58 42
Chesaning River Rapids District Library PASS 75 25
Chocolay Twp. Peter White Public Library PASS 79 21
Clinton Clinton Township Public Library PASS 79 21
Clinton Twp. Clinton-Macomb Public Library PASS 64 36
Corunna Community District Library PASS 63 37
Crystal Falls Crystal Falls District Community Library PASS 78 22
Dorr Dorr Township Library PASS 63 37
Elsie Elsie Public Library PASS 69 31
Fremont Fremont Area District Library PASS 50.4 49.6
Gaylord Otsego County Library PASS 71 29
Grayling Crawford County Library PASS 61 39
Harrison Twp. Harrison Township Public Library FAIL 43 57
Holly Holly Township Public Library PASS 74 26
Homer Homer Public Library  PASS 57 43
Imlay City Goodland Township Library FAIL 43 57
Imlay City Goodland Township Library FAIL 48 52
Manistique Manistique School & Public Library PASS 64 36
Marquette Twp. Peter White Public Library PASS 75 25
Milford Milford Public Library PASS 61 39
Mio Oscoda County Library PASS 57 43
Monroe Monroe County Library System PASS 64 36
Montcalm County Montcalm County Public Libraries PASS 54 46
Muskegon Hackley Public Library PASS 77 23
Newberry Tahquamenon Area Public Library PASS 67 33
Oak Park Oak Park Public Library PASS 82 18
Palmer Richmond Township Library PASS 78 22
Paradise Whitefish Township Public Library PASS 78 22
Petoskey Petoskey District Library PASS 71 29
Pinckney Pinckney Community Public Library PASS 66 34
Ray Center Ray Township Public Library PASS 55 45
Remus Wheatland Township Public Library PASS 58 42
Rockford Kent District Library  FAIL 47 53
Rogers City Presque Isle District Library PASS 67 33
Rose City Ogemaw District Library PASS 56 44
Saginaw Bridgeport Public Library PASS 74 26
Sands Twp. Peter White Public Library  PASS 80 20
Sanilac County Sanilac County Public Libraries PASS 77 23
Skandia Twp. Peter White Public Library PASS 70 30
Spring Lake Spring Lake District Library PASS 78 22
Stephenson Menominee County Library PASS 61 39
Suttons Bay Suttons Bay Bingham District Library PASS 71 29
Troy Troy Public Library PASS 64 36
Walloon Lake Crooked Tree District Library PASS 65 35
Watervliet Watervliet District Library PASS 68 32
Weidman Sherman Township Library PASS 64 36
West Branch Twp. Peter White Public Library  PASS 76 24
White Pigeon White Pigeon Township Library PASS 69 31
Whitehall White Lake Community Library PASS 63 37
Harrisonville Cass County Public Library PASS 60 40
Holts Summit Daniel Boone Regional Library PASS 57 43
Monett Barry-Lawrence Regional Libraries PASS 61 39
Boulder Boulder and Whitehall Community Libraries FAIL 47 53
Glasgow Glasgow City-County Library  PASS 53 47
Glendive Glendive and Richey Public Libraries PASS 71 29
Hamilton Bitterroot Public Library PASS 59 41
NEW YORK        
Glen Head Gold Coast Public Library PASS 90 10
Gorham Gorham Free Library PASS 75 25
Hornell Hornell Public Library PASS 60 40
Jamestown Prendergast Library PASS 53 47
Middlesex Middlesex Reading Center PASS 78 22
Rushville Rushville Reading Center  PASS 78 22
Smithtown Smithtown Public Library PASS 74 26
Watertown Flower Memorial Library PASS 74 26
Woodstock Woodstock Public Library District PASS 72 28
Ashley Wornstaff Memorial Public Libraries PASS 75 25
Attica Seneca East Public Library PASS 61 39
Avon Lorain Public Library System PASS 60 40
Barberton Barberton Public Library PASS 61 39
Bowling Wood County District Public PASS 73 27
Green Library      
Chillicothe Chillicothe & Ross County Public Libraries PASS 70 30
Cuyahoga Falls Cuyahoga Falls Library PASS 67 33
Findlay Findlay-Hancock County Public Libraries PASS 71 29
Fremont Birchard Public Library PASS 66 34
Garrettsville Portage County District Library FAIL 47 53
Gratis Marion Lawrence Memorial Library PASS 67 33
Grove City Southwest Public Libraries PASS 73 27
Lewisburg Brown Memorial Public Library PASS 71 29
Louisville Louisville Public Library PASS 53 47
Marietta Washington County Public LIbrary PASS 63 37
Massillon Massillon Public Library PASS 63 37
Mount Gilead Mount Gilead Public Library PASS 60 40
Newcomers town Newcomerstown Public Library PASS 73 27
Oakwood Wright Memorial Public Library PASS 68 32
Parma Cuyahoga County Public Library PASS 59 41
Perry Perry Public Library PASS 69 31
Perrysburg Way Public Library PASS 80 20
Plain City Plain City Public Library PASS 81 19
Ravenna Reed Memorial Library PASS 70 30
St. Mary’s St. Mary’s Community Public LIbrary PASS 77 23
Sycamore Mohawk Community Library PASS 58 42
Urbana Champaign County Library PASS 60 40
Van Wert Brumback Library  PASS 77 23
West Chester MidPointe Library System PASS 75 25
Willard Huron County Community Library PASS 63 37
Yellow Springs Greene County Public Library PASS 72 28
Eugene  Eugene Public Library PASS 77 23
Stayton Stayton Public Library FAIL 47 53
Stayton Stayton Public Library FAIL 49.6 50.4
Sweet Home Sweet Home Public Library PASS 73 27
Veneta Fern Ridge Public Library  PASS 58 42
Bessemer  F.D. Campbell Memorial Library PASS 74 26
Bethlehem Bethlehem Public Library PASS 79 21
Nazareth Memorial Library of Nazareth PASS 54 46
Castle Rock Castle Rock Public LIbrary FAIL* 58 42
Buckhannon Charles W. Gibson Library PASS 70 31
Capon Bridge Hampshire County Public System FAIL* 58 42
Capon Bridge Hampshire County Public Library PASS 67 33
Grafton Taylor County Public Library PASS 88 12
Grantsville Calhoun County Library PASS 62 38
Harpers Ferry Jefferson County Public Libraries PASS 69 31
Kenova Wayne County Public Library PASS 67 33
Madison Boone-Madison Public Library PASS 82 18
Morgantown Morgantown Public Library System PASS 72 28
Oak Hill Fayette County Public Library PASS 90 10
Ripley Jackson County Public Libraries PASS 70 30
Spencer Roane County Public Library PASS 72 28

* Supermajority required for passage

Patrick Sweeney is Deputy Director of the EveryLibrary Institute, coauthor of two books on library funding, and lecturer at San José Ischool.

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Kimberly M

The Antioch Library (IL) referendum actually did 8 votes.

Posted : Feb 22, 2021 08:51



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