How Libraries Count in the 2012 Election

Originally posted October 17, 2012 on American Libraries

By Beverly Goldberg

As icons of civic engagement in America, libraries are perfectly positioned to host voter registration drives and, as local statutes permit, be venues for early voting and Election Day polls. In this particularly spirited election year, libraries may be playing their largest role yet in such efforts. Consequently, they have also been drawn into the national debate over how best to protect voter rights and election integrity.

The stage was set this past summer at the ALA Annual Conference, when the Association’s governing Council passed a resolution that “opposes voter ID laws, restrictions on voter registration, cuts to early voting, and any other laws resulting in the restriction of lawful access to voting.”

Libraries stepped into the breach in states where voter ID laws were recently enacted to clarify the new requirements. A voter clinic at the Northern Tier Regional Library in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, took place October 2, the day before a state court halted enforcement of the new law for the 2012 election.

But Memphis (Tenn.) Public Library and Information Center continues to find itself embroiled in the implementation of Tennessee’s year-old voter ID law. Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton Jr. declared in early July that Shelby County residents who had opted to obtain a photo ID library card could use it as valid voter ID in the county’s August 2 primary. Although US District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled July 31 against Wharton’s interpretation, the city of Memphis continued pursuing the matter at the state level and, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported October 12, will argue the validity of photo library cards as voter ID October 14 before the Tennessee Court of Appeals—just a few days before early voting is scheduled to begin in that state. Updated November 5, 2012: The Tennessee Supreme Court on November 1 ordered state and local election officials to accept Memphis Public Library’s photo ID cards at the polls for the November 6 general election, according to the November 1 Commercial Appeal.

For most libraries, voter education efforts were comprised of offering topical reading materials and linking to such nonpartisan websites as the League of Women Voters’ Vote411.org resource for voter-education materials. “In many cases, libraries have also graciously provided space for League issue forums and candidate debates,” Jeanette Senecal, senior director of elections for the League, told American Libraries. She added that hundreds of libraries also made space available for voter registration drives, particularly on the first-ever National Voter Registration Day, held September 25.

If you think about it, this makes sense,” San Antonio Public Library board chair Jean Brady wrote in a guest editorial in the September 23 San Antonio Express-News. “We are dedicated to freedom of information, certainly important for an educated electorate.”

Loudoun County (Va.) Public Library was so inundated with requests to accommodate voter registration events that Director Chang Liu and Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreat decided the library should stop providing space for third-party get-out-the-vote drives in mid-September. Several days later, the library board reversed course. “It wasn’t any deliberate attempt to say we’re not going to allow voter registration,” board chair Nancy Nuell said in the September 24 Leesburg Today of the board’s September 19 vote to rescind the ban.

At least one library profited monetarily from election fever. Charlotte (N.C.) Mecklenburg Library leased the 570-seat children’s theater in its Imaginon Library to Comedy Central’s Daily Show, which broadcast from the space to the week of the Democratic National Convention. CML and its private partner, the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, split $94,488 in rent.