Megan Murray Cusick is the Assistant Director for State Advocacy at American Library Association, working in partnership with ALA’s state chapters and affiliates to speak with a unified voice about the transformative power of our nation’s nearly 120,000 public, school, academic, and special libraries. Prior to joining American Library Association, Megan was a high school librarian working in Chicago high schools and Cook County’s juvenile detention center, where she integrated civic engagement across the curriculum.
As centers of civic life in neighborhoods, schools, and academic institutions across the country, libraries are key partners during elections. Open to all and serving communities of all ages and backgrounds, they are uniquely positioned to connect with large numbers of current and future voters.
Libraries have a long history of promoting participation in the electoral process. They disseminate curated voter information, like this Be a Voter Guide from Cook Memorial Public Library in Illinois. They serve as voter registration centers; some, like public libraries in Ohio, are designated as such by state law. They hold candidate forums or debates and some, like the Juneau Public Library in Alaska, even host workshops for people considering a run for office. Many serve as polling places and ballot drop-off sites. With huge increases in absentee voting and in places where vote-by-mail is the norm, libraries such as Multnomah County Library in Oregon have made their book drops available as ballot drop-off sites.
Libraries are able to support voter engagement in these many different ways because they are strongly rooted in their communities and have a strong network of partnerships with government agencies, community organizations, business groups, and elected officials. In their professional roles, librarians are nonpartisan, and they embed the professional ethics of equitable access to high-quality, accurate information into their civic engagement work. Partner groups recognize that, while it is valuable and necessary to have many places to register voters, one that engages with that voter long before and long after an election has a powerful role in strengthening our democratic systems. While the right and responsibility to vote are critical for a healthy democracy, that engagement cannot end on election day.
Moreover, candidates for office rely on their libraries well beyond election day. Win or lose, they are parents who bring their children to literacy and STEM programming, farmers that count on the library’s reliable—and often 24 x 7—broadband access, business owners who utilize the library’s business development software or specialized tools like 3-D printers. They are girl scout troop leaders who hold meetings there, and they are neighbors who attend the library’s educational and cultural programming. For candidates that win their elections, many hold office hours or town hall meetings at their libraries; a few even have offices in their local libraries.
School librarians collaborate with teachers to begin growing voters as they learn about the American system of government. They teach media literacy and help students learn how to ask questions, seek information, and sort fact from fiction. School librarians often host mock-elections so that students learn about the process of voting long before they are old enough to register. In high schools, librarians host voter registration and voter turnout events. They continue to work with teachers and community partners to help students understand issues at stake during the election and how government action impacts their daily lives. They invite candidates or elected officials to talk with students about voting, government, and civics. Academic librarians provide voting information and help students register to vote, particularly those that live on campus or have changed addresses.
This year presents unique challenges in reaching, informing, and turning out voters. We’ve all seen the troubling headlines, including the news that voter registration is down compared to previous years. Libraries are ready to work with their communities to address those challenges and reverse that trend. While voter engagement is ongoing, the urgency of now is a keen focus on helping libraries inform and register voters. Having a designated holiday to raise awareness and make voter registration a celebratory, community-wide event unites libraries of all types around a common goal and shared purpose. The NVRD toolkit makes participation simple and encourages even more librarians to join the effort.
In 2019, during off-year elections, more than 800 libraries participated in National Voter Registration Day. The American Library Association is proud to have recently announced its premier partnership with NVRD for 2020 and looks forward to supporting even more libraries across the country as they register eligible voters, keep them civically engaged, and move our country closer to its promise of a representative and participatory democracy.