Let me pose a simple question: why don’t more people vote? No, I’m not talking about 2016 general election or the midterm elections—relevant as those might be. I’m referring here to elections of the American Library Association (ALA), for which turnout, or the lack thereof, is a topic of discussion almost as frequently as the candidates and issues.
Case in point is our most recent election this spring. In addition to voting for a new president, members of the governing council, and assorted other boards and offices of the various sub-organizations and such, you’ll recall we had a rather hot button question on the ballot.
Here’s the background in brief: ALA’s long-time executive director Keith Michael Fiels announced his retirement some time ago, and the usual replacement process—involving a search firm, a broadly representative search committee chaired by a recent ALA president—kicked in. The search would have been straightforward if not for a question that has hung over the position for decades: must the executive director of the American Library Association have a library degree?
Professional identity means a great deal to a lot of librarians, so this question really cut to the quick for many. And as the search was launched, much discussion was had, leading to a very narrow decision by the council to continue requiring that candidates have a library degree.
But, after several months, the search committee reported back with no candidates to recommend. Given that reality, one reasonable next step was to relax the MLS requirement , to make the degree preferred, and thus broaden the candidate pool. Which is what the council decided. Fair enough—except that decision prompted a rare membership petition, which succeeded in getting the degree requirement question on the annual ballot.
In an editorial, Library Journal’s John Berry argued that “to abandon the MLIS as a requirement, or to dilute it by calling it only preferred,” was to “devalue it and the professionalism of the librarians who have earned it.”
But here’s the kicker: in order for that question to count, overall turnout needed to hit a required quorum of 25%. No problem, right? With all the passion so vehemently expressed in the effort to get this question on the ballot, surely one-in-four ALA members would at least cast a vote, right? Short answer: nope.
The good news is that turnout was up by a little over a thousand people this year, which is nice, but hardly dramatic in a voting pool of more than 50,000. Overall turnout barely cracked 20%. So even having an issue on the ballot that at times felt like a pitched battle for the very soul of the profession moved the needle only slightly.
How is that possible? Leaving aside the merits of this particular issue and the back-and-forth, inside baseball of it all—what happened here? Or, more to the point, what didn’t? Why couldn’t one-in-four ALA members be bothered to even click a few things on a website to cast a ballot?
Here’s a little more background: ALA posts voting turnout statistics on its website going back to 1970. Since 1970, membership has more than doubled from about 24,000 to about 55,000. Nearly 40% of members voted in that 1970 election—but since then, turnout has steadily declined. Even the switch to online voting 15 years ago hasn’t improved matters much; in the last 20 years, ALA election turnout levels have hit 25% just three times.
Now, I don’t believe that librarians are unique in this regard. I am sure a number of professional membership associations see similar turnout in their elections. But still, for librarians, the lack of turnout should prompt little soul-searching. We obviously can’t blame the lack of a deeply felt and contentious issue for the low turnout, nor could we pin it on a paucity of quality candidates.
In fact, in two of the last three elections, we’ve had petition candidates for the ALA presidency on the ballot alongside the two officially nominated candidates (including yours truly, in an unusual four-way race in 2015, and I still hold the record for the closest loss—just 22 votes). But even those petition candidacies didn’t make a whole lot of difference in overall turnout.
So what gives? Perhaps the ALA’s large majority of nonvoters just think that everything is fine the way it is? Trust me, that’s not the case.
Unfortunately, it seems more likely that many just don’t care. Maybe they aren’t that engaged with ALA as an institution, or they join ALA for other reasons. Perhaps they think it doesn’t matter who’s in charge or what ALA does. Or, as one often hears, they believe ALA is too remote, too big, too byzantine, too complicated, too pointless—just too much.
All of which, of course, is somewhat justifiable. There are ten or so large divisions along with dozens of offices and roundtables and interest groups, which in a profession as large and diverse as ours is understandable. But, still, it’s a lot to take in. And for many people, the big picture of ALA is simply of less interest and concern than their own province.
Nonetheless, in a community as boisterous as ours, in such extraordinary times, and with so many voices wanting to be heard, this large blanket of silence when it comes to participating in ALA election seems somehow odd, doesn’t it?
I started with a simple question, so let me close with a simple answer. Why don’t more people vote in ALA elections? Because. And all of the explanations above stipulated, let’s face it, there’s also a certain percentage of people who don’t vote simply because some people don’t vote—ever, in any election. Just look at some of the turnout levels in local primaries. And then there are others who don’t vote because they don’t think anybody else votes. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But in looking at the ALA election numbers over the last few decades, I noticed a curiosity. Even though the turnout percentage has steadily trended downward, the actual number of people voting has been much more stable, which implies that the membership of ALA is willing to let a relatively small subset of people decide the direction of the organization. I would have thought by now we’d all learned that isn’t such a hot idea.