Know Your Yes Voters

This piece appeared in the September 11, 2017 edition of Library Hotline.

My clarion call for library votes is, “It’s not our job to turn out the no voters; it’s only our job to turn out the yes voters!”

Sometimes library trustees and leadership volunteers look at me quizzically. I go on to explain that elections are a product of democracy but are not inherently democratic. You need to identify your yes voters and make sure they come out to vote. It’s up to someone else to remind the no voters to go to the polls. Identifying voters is the foundation of any winning library effort— or any electoral effort, for that matter. Library leadership and Friends need to be strategic. You shore up your base, go after the undecideds, and don’t bother convincing no voters to change their minds. That is a monumental waste of time. How do you identify voters? There are a number of ways.

Make the Calls, Ring the Doorbells
At the Mount Vernon Public Library in New York’s Westchester County, they used just about every option available. The first step was getting hold of the voter file—public data from the local board of elections—and then purchasing updated phone numbers (cell and land) and email addresses for those voters, as board of elections data is not always the most up-to-date. The second step was reaching out to the voters and identifying them.

For a month straight, the Friends and their supporters went to their Mount Vernon office and did nothing but make phone calls. They had a script. They had call sheets. They had pens. And, I believe, they had pizza and soda.

The script was specific to what would happen if the vote passed and if it failed. It came down to a choice between closing the library altogether—or extending hours, enhancing public computer access and establishing a computer lab, developing an early learning center, expanding homework help, and strengthening the library’s job center and career assistance program.

Callers posed the negative scenario before the positive one. And then they gave voters the ask: “Can we count on your support?”

Over those four weeks, callers identified 851 yes voters by sticking to the script and the final ask. If folks said yes, they were recorded as a one. If they said maybe, they were a two. If they said no, they were a three, thanked for their time, and never called again.

Mount Vernon has more than 75,000 people in four square miles, which means a lot of apartment buildings. It was relatively easy for Friends and supporters to go door to door with a petition from Mount Vernon Taxpayers for a Stronger Library. A few hundred names were gathered and added to the voter file as supporters.

Every time there was a public presentation about the library’s effort, someone from the Friends was there to grab more petition signatures. For each opportunity to identify yes voters, the Friends and their supporters took it.

Strategically placed robocalls went out as well. The mayor recorded a message to voters in the wards and election districts he carried in his last race. An older woman recorded a “grandma” call that went to seniors,  saying, “I know we’re all on a fixed income and this will cost us a little bit, but we have to do it for our kids and grandkids.” There was even a robocall from the library director to everyone in the city, reminding them of the time and place of the vote. While these calls didn’t identify yes voters, they did add to the momentum.

Having the Last Word
So what did Mount Vernon do with all the voter identification information? To begin with, everyone who signed a petition was sent the bandwagon piece—a brochure showing broad-based support for the library, featuring testimonies from prominent members of the community and quotes about libraries from well-known African Americans such as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

As the vote date approached, Get Out the Vote (GOTV) voice calls and robocalls were made. The volunteers phoned everyone identified as library supporters and reminded them when and where to vote. They also did one last GOTV robocall targeted to yes voters.

Overkill? Perhaps. But on election day, the line at the polls wound its way out of the library and down the block. The community room where the balloting took place was packed from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.Folks brought the bandwagon piece with them.

After the final tally, 2,582 people had voted. The library won with 78 percent of the vote. While only 851 people had been identified as yes voters, it’s clear that the message got through—and then some. Identifying the voters gave Mount Vernon the base it needed to get 2,014 people to vote yes and save the library.

If you don’t identify your voters, you can’t win. If you identify them, and then follow up, you give yourself the strategic edge you need to be successful.