Registering voters and serving as a polling place is one way libraries “live the mission.”
Although state and local voting laws vary, many areas allow and even require public libraries to serve as voter registration sites and polling locations. Madison Public Library in Wisconsin is among them. “All 9 of our library locations serve as absentee voting sites,” reports Krissy Wick, Director of Public Services: “Residents can come to the library to vote two weeks prior to each Election Day (even on nights and weekends). This is in addition to the voter registration we do regularly all year. Our libraries now see more voting than our City Clerk’s office!”
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 mandated that states provide broader access to voter registration through state and local agencies. Some states have designated their public libraries as voter registration sites to comply, meaning that in addition to offering information, voter registration forms are accepted from citizens and transmitted to election officials. “When people register to get a library card, we ask if they would like to register or update their voter information,” says Renae Rountree, Director of the Washington County Public Library in Florida.
Many libraries also serve as polling places on Election Day. Paul Kagebein, Adult Services Programmer at the Garland County Library in Arkansas, explains how he began the process of becoming a polling place: “I reached out to the Garland County Election Commission and invited them to see our facility. They agreed it would be a wonderful partnership… The Election Commission is fully responsible for setup and operating of the voting process. We provide the space and adjust our hours on voting day to accommodate the legal polling hours.” Kagebein believes the library is ideal for this purpose: “…hundreds of people come into the library in a given day just to access other resources. It’s a perfect opportunity for a significant number of people to have an easier opportunity to vote.”
Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in New York serves 2.6 million residents, and 20 of their 59 branches serve as polling places for primary and general elections. On Election Day, all branches open for voting offer a Community Open House with coffee and snacks. “Anything to make the process more bearable and welcoming,” explains Nick Higgins, Chief Librarian of BPL. While citizens wait in line to vote, staff offer library card applications. “It’s a great opportunity to get new users in the door, welcome the community, and keep them coming back,” Higgins says. For residents, the library is recognizable and familiar, putting voters at ease.
The process is not without logistical challenges. BPL branches that serve as polling places open at 5am on Election Day and stay open as late as midnight to enable all in line to cast ballots. This requires some adjustment of staff schedules; however, library services are available only during regular library hours. Some public space is temporarily sacrificed for voting equipment and crowds, but there have been very few complaints: People “recognize the importance” of the event, Higgins explains.
For library staff, welcoming voters is an opportunity to “live the mission of the public library” Higgins adds. Two BPL locations will be open for special hours on President’s Day for voter registration. Every visitor will received a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution.
Many libraries partner with their local chapter of League of Women Voters (LWV) to provide voter registration services. Slover Library, a branch of Norfolk Public Library in Virginia, contacted their local LWV about partnering to offer voter registration once a month on a Saturday afternoon at the Library. “Our first event registered six customers; updated one customer’s address; and fielded several questions about registering to vote,” reports Josette Dubois, Programs Librarian.
The Voter Education and Registration Assistance Project (VERAP) is a collaboration between League of Women Voters of the Northwoods (LWVNOW) and Wisconsin public libraries serving the same area. Kris Adams Wendt, Public Library Consultant for Wisconsin Valley Library Service, has been “advising and serving as liaison between LWVNOW voter services committee and the wider Wisconsin library community to get the word out about the VERAP tools.”
Your state or local election office can advise on voter services at the library. The American Library Association (ALA)’s guide Libraries and Voter Engagement includes useful resources and steps for getting starting, such as keeping the library’s board and administration apprised and ensuring all staff and volunteers understand local voting laws pertaining to library activities.
Please see my previous article, Election Year at the Library, for more ideas on engaging voters during the election season.