[Quick Hits -- This is a fairly long post. If you're pressed for time: Skim the intro, take in the percentages of questions one and two, read question three, skim conclusion. Download .pdf
of whole post for later.]
A little while after the 2011 ALA Election, Erica Findley posted a message to the Facebook group ALA Thinktank lamenting the lackluster voter turnout (approximately 1/5 of ALA members voted). Reasons for the low turnout were discussed (mostly by people who voted) until Andy Woodworth challenged us to stop the conjecturing and do something. Reading that, I pondered for a minute or two and decided, per the #makeithappen philosophy, to find out why people didn’t vote. The best way that I could think of how to do that was to simply ask.
I spent a few minutes brainstorming and wording the questions/answer choices and creating the survey. Using Google Forms I got a tool which was both free and conveniently deposited the answers into a downloadable spreadsheet. Naturally, the questions I came up with aren’t perfect, but I felt that the survey had to directly address voting (not general ALA gripes, though those came in too), be short enough so even the worst of I-don’t-care-niks would take a moment to fill it out, and be useful for future Election committees.
After coming up with the survey, I posted a link to the Thinktank for a people to review before giving the word to let the survey loose into the world. The distribution was completely voluntary and started via social media as several Thinktankers posted a link on their Twitter and Facebook feeds, as well as their blogs. After this first wave, I can’t say exactly how the survey spread but I do know that several state library organizations received it as well as some general library list-servs. A huge boost in responses came when the folks behind AL Direct included the survey in their weekly round-up. A completely online distribution means, of course, that offline non-voters were not represented within the results. This is a trade-off that had to be made since a direct mail and/or phone campaign would have made a turnaround of just under two weeks impossible. This is just one of the issues that we must take into account when considering the validity of our results, feel free to post others in the comments.
Between the time the survey opened May 4th and closed May 16th, a total of 521 responses were received. This was brought down to 502 after I removed the entries from respondents that were clearly not part of the sample population (those who voted or were not eligible to vote) and obvious duplicates. The only other edits I made were to insert a paragraph to a respondent’s answer for question two per her request by email, and to correct the occasional typo and spelling mistake when I caught them (I didn’t, however, systematically correct spelling, my name not being “Spell Check”). The complete cleaned-up spreadsheet of responses is here(.pdf, 233KB), the raw responses are here(.pdf, 240KB). A cursory glance will reveal very few differences between the two, but keep in mind that the calculations below are based on the cleaned-up version. Also, I tallied the the following statistics by hand so please excuse the human error that probably hides there. If you catch anything, do let me know.
My more specific analyses are below and in the conclusion, however, a general word or two before the results. Reading through the responses (which I did, several times…Yes, all five hundred of them) was at once demoralizing, enlightening, and hopeful. It’s true that some respondents were very forthcoming about their apathy, but this was tempered by the respondents who, despite being hampered by various things, were truly earnest in their desire to vote. My intention and hope in doing this survey and taking the time to calculate and write up these results is that future election committees, ALA administration in general and, most importantly, candidates would use them to spur change in the election process in order to draw more turnout. 502 responses is an amount that, at least statistically, is said to represent the approximately forty thousand non-voters. Now that we are in possession of this information, let’s take the initiative and increase future voter turnout. #makeithappen
Why didn’t you vote in the 2011 ALA Election? (respondents could choose all that applied so results do not add up to 100%)
75% I was unfamiliar with the candidates
38% I don’t understand what, if elected, the candidates would do.
24% Voting takes too much time.
17% I forgot
9% The voting interface was clunky
3% I didn’t know there was an election
2% Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from voting
* 23% of respondents wrote in their own responses in the open field marked “Other.” These loosely break down in the following way (responses were categorized twice when appropriate, see Appendix for all responses):
25% (6% of total) Apathy (“Didn’t care,” “Not interested in outcome”) or something similar
21% (5% of total) Time Pressure (“Too busy,” “Low priority”) or something similar
12% (3% of total) Candidate Issues (“too many,” “no difference,” “don’t represent me”) or something similar
11% (2.6% of total) Online Voting Issues (“Paper ballots,” “Won’t vote online”) or something similar
8% (2% of total) My fault (“I didn’t take the time,” “laziness”) or something similar
8% (2% of total) General disconnect from ALA as a whole (“not involved with,” “don’t feel part of,” “doesn’t impact my professional life”) or something similar
7% (1.5% of total) Did not perceive oneself part of voting public (“retir(ing/ed),” “student,” new) or something similar
7% (1.5% of total) Bureaucratic Issues (Couldn’t login, etc.) or something similar
3% (<1% of total) Timing of Election (“Voting Window too short”) or something similar
2% (<1% of total) Other
Based on the simple tallies and categorization carried out for question one, the overwhelming problem for non-voters is a lack of connection to the candidates, if not the organization as a whole. The sample population (ALA members who were eligible to vote but didn’t) did not recognize the names of those who were running and were unfamiliar with the position for which they were running. In their follow-up comments, a number of respondents felt that they should not vote for candidates and issues on which they are not educated.
Time was another major issue according to question one. The 24% and the 5% in the “Other” field (note that respondents could have marked off, “Voting takes too much time” in addition to writing a related comment in the open field) that indicated not voting due to time-related issues had a variety of reasons including too much to do at home or at work (staffing shortages, etc.), as well as the size of the ballot, and time necessary to do adequate research on the candidates and their positions. The voting interface, or size of the ballot, could also have contributed if the non-voter had started a ballot but did not have time to go back and finish it.
Related to time issues were cases of “information overload” that led to forgetfulness or lost emails, and a range of bureaucratic issues like absence of login information. Likewise, the “information overload” factor was also likely related to the amount of candidates which might have a link to the respondents who blamed themselves for being too lazy or simply not taking the time to give voting due diligence (2%).
A small faction (2.6%) of the non-voter population were exclusively adamant about paper ballots. This percentage increases a little when the responses that mentioned paper ballots in the other questions (but did not write them in to the “Other” field in question one) were tallied with this. The ease of reading offline, “email overload,” and a distrust in the integrity of online voting were the main reasons for this group.
More information could be taken from the raw data provided in question one if the amount of respondents who marked the same two (or more) options were counted (i.e. How many respondents that marked “I was unfamiliar with the candidates” also marked “I don’t understand what, if elected, the candidates would do”?). Having that information would allow further conclusions to be drawn about non-voters. If anyone would like to take that on, just email me and I’ll send you my Excel spreadsheet with the data. I’m sure plugging the responses into a database would make finding links quite easy (by searching for two strings using an AND operator in the appropriate field, for example). As with everything, post any results you get into the comments and I’ll incorporate them into what’s already up here.
Please expand on the items you selected above.
Approximately 2/3 of the respondents to question one also responded to question two. Instead of forcing you to read all 334 of the responses to this question, I broke them down and tallied them using similar categories as those in the “Other” field above. If they fit in one or more of the categories, I put them there, if they explained an item in question one I didn’t mark them down unless they fit snugly into one of the other categories. Many of them ended up fitting into more than one category. Below the quantified results I’ve highlighted responses I felt were representative or noteworthy in some way.
23% Time Pressure (“Too busy,” “Low priority”) or something similar
22.6% Candidate Issues (“too many,” “no difference,” “don’t represent me”) or something similar
18% General disconnect from ALA as a whole (“not involved with,” “don’t feel part of,” “doesn’t impact my professional life”) or something similar
10% Did not perceive oneself part of voting public (“retir(ing/ed),” “student,” new, foreign) or something similar
8% Bureaucratic Issues (Couldn’t login, etc.) or something similar
7% Apathy (“Didn’t care,” “Not interested in outcome”) or something similar
7% My fault (“I didn’t take the time,” “laziness”) or something similar
5% Online Voting Issues (“Paper ballots,” “Won’t vote online”) or something similar
1% Timing of Election (“Voting Window too short”) or something similar
“I’m just so busy, it’s really hard to find the time to become more informed about the candidates.”
“I belong to two divisions and several sections within those divisions, which means a lot of ballots and a lot of races. Most of the time I don’t know much about the candidates and reading through their list of accomplishments is tedious. Unlike political elections, I feel most candidates are generally on the same page with me and there aren’t controversial issues or enough clear differences between the candidates to compel me to vote.”
“The election falls in one of the busiest times of the year for my library, and I didn’t have time to look up all the candidates, learn about them and their positions (not just what they say publicly as part of their platform, but their larger presence in the library world, etc.)”
“I feel anyone willing to run for the positions listed has already decided to commit themselves fully to undertaking the responsibilities necessary to their elected position. Any differences between the candidates would be like deciding what flavors of dessert you wanted after you’ve already committed to eating dessert: they are all equally yummy.”
“To read and make informed decisions about who to vote for and why would have taken more time than I have whether at work or at home. My other priorities take precedence. There is little encouragement or interaction at work to discuss candidates, their importance as elected ALA officers to do what for us that has meaning and impact for us at a local level.”
“I honestly don’t see any difference between any of the candidates. They all take a very standard, middle-of-the-road approach to our profession and supply the same answers to the same questions.”
General disconnect from ALA as a whole:
“…I am not convinced that the leadership of ALA (especially at the very highest levels) really makes any difference in my day-to-day work and the constraints that my library faces.”
“The ALA is some ambiguous, amorphous organization that I really have no contact with. I don’t see how it helps me in the day to day; it focuses almost solely on public libraries; and some of its stances are frankly embarrassing and ridiculous. (Why in the world does a library organization need to pass resolutions on unrelated political happenings? A resolution on the war in Iraq? Really?) I guess I feel that the ALA is out of touch. They talk a good game, but it’s the same game they’ve been talking for the last twenty years, albeit with a different vocab. I can’t think of a demonstrable difference they’ve made in my life, professional or personal, and if they have, they have failed to communicate it.”
Did not perceive oneself part of voting public (“retir(ing/ed),” “student,” new) or something similar
“I’m a new ALA member. I don’t have much familiarity yet with the organization, the elected positions, or the persons running. I hope to become more familiar after attending this summer’s conference.”
“I just became a student member about two months before the election and the little blurbs sent out requesting my vote did not differentiate the candidates. I couldn’t tell what difference it would make to vote one way or the other. I usually vote in EVERY political election, and I hope to know more next year so that I can vote. I felt guilty for not voting, but did not want to make an uninformed decision.”
“I am a retired life member who is no longer active in ALA. I keep up on some of the news, and read parts of the online weekly newsletters; but ALA is not a focus in the way it was prior to my retirement. I will continue to support various units of ALA through paying for membership (& publications) but voting on the scale that ALA elections ask is something I no longer feel compelled to do.”
The clear takeaway from the responses to the second question is that many of them feel different aspects of candidate issues mixed with being “unfamiliar with the candidates” – how are they different, what they do, that there are too many are all strains that can be felt in nearly every response that mentions candidates at all. Respondents felt overwhelmed by the amount of candidates and with no way to easily distinguish them did not want to be “uninformed voters.” But without an easy way to get informed and with the added weight of time pressure, most respondents opted-out of voting.
In fact, the concept of the “uninformed voter” was huge in question two. Wanting to take their voting responsibilities seriously, many non-voters were curious about what their elected officials did, who they were besides what was written in their statements, and how they differed from the other candidates. This seemed to be a thread through many of the contests but particularly when selecting the Councilors – several people mentioned starting the ballot and not finishing it because they were unable to find time to research all of the candidates for those positions. As to how non-voters wanted the statements changed, there were mixed responses; some wanted longer ones, some shorter. Fairly few people explained exactly what kind of information they wanted to know about candidates.
Moving to a larger scale, the issue of being disconnected from ALA was consistently brought up: it’s relation to day-to-day life, the size of the organization, and the complexity of its governance structure was a mystery and a turn-off to many non-voters who, as a result, indicted that they felt distant from the candidates and ALA’s everyday achievements. Even members who were heavily involved in a specific area of ALA appeared wary of the whole. For some of these members (though not all of them), political stands perceived as being unrelated to library issues played a part in their disillusionment.
Two groups that were notable in removing themselves as part of the “voting public” were students and retired (or almost retired) members. Students who were still in school or had recently graduated (Congrats!!), for the most part, did not feel that they knew enough about the candidates in particular and ALA in general to cast an “informed” vote. Many students that responded, however, mentioned that they expected to be voting members in the future once they got settled. Retired members, on the other hand, while remaining involved and passionate about libraries, did not expect to return to being voting members in the future.
7% of respondents reported being in some way apathetic, demoralized, or cynical about the voting process. For many, this was as a result of systematic problems within ALA, for some, it was a matter of representation. A small number of school and academic librarians felt that ALA represented primarily public libraries. A few respondents with non-traditional library jobs likewise felt disenfranchised.
The number of technical/bureaucratic issues such as lost logins, uncertain membership info, or some other technical mishaps were a slightly larger percentage of question two responses than write-ins for question one. The number of folks interested in paper ballots was very slightly higher in question two (13 in q1 versus 18 in q2) though a negligible amount when looking proportionally at the number of responses.
What would need to happen for you to vote in the next election?
Of the 300 responses to question three, only fourteen (~5%) were flat-out against voting in the future. Mostly everyone else who responded had some condition that would lead that respondent to vote in the next election. The majority of these conditions fell into the following categories:
24% Learn more about the candidates / their responsibilities
19% Demonstrate ALA/Election relevance
8% Clear differences between candidates / different candidates
8% Simpler voting process
7% More time in my schedule
6% Nothing, I’ll vote in the future
6% Paper ballots
5% Less/more/different reminders
4% Less candidates
3% Fix login issues
2% If someone I know has running
Again, as we saw in the previous questions, the biggest obstacle for non-voters was becoming “informed voters.” Various suggestions were given as to how voters could be informed about the different candidates including: A widely distributed voters’ guide, candidate’s campaigning, “Meet the Candidates” forums for more of the candidates, using different methods to connect to voters, particularly online (YouTube, Twitter, audio, etc.). Non-voters wanted to know who they were voting for and most, when they found this to be too difficult or time-consuming, decided not to vote. Kim Leeder had made a spreadsheet outlining the various candidates for Councilor-at-Large and this was mentioned by a respondent (though not by name), it seems like the spreadsheet is close to what some non-voters were looking for. Dovetailing into knowing more about the candidates is the 8% of respondents that wanted to see a clearer difference between the candidates or different candidates in general.
The second most important condition that would encourage respondents to vote is for ALA to demonstrate it’s relevance. This was a hazy issue for most non-voters, but was often related to paying dues and not seeing noticeable differences in their workplaces especially when held up against the budget issues many of the respondent’s libraries were facing. A sizable group within this percentage were new ALA members who were feeling lost in the shuffle. Several suggested a new member’s guide or something similar to give them an idea why the American Library Association matters. Though, as mentioned in the introduction, this survey was not intended to be a place for general ALA gripes, it appears that not voting in the election is directly related to them. This became clear in the “Other” category in which respondents mentioned ALA’s political stances, and again, dues-related issues. In the same category were requests for changes to ALA governance with special emphasis on increasing term limits. My personal favorite response that was categorized as “Other” was that “filling out this survey” was what needed to happen for that person to vote in the next election. If only the other 501 respondents made it so easy.
The final batch of categories to cover are those to refer to “process”: “fix login issues,” “less/more/different reminders,” “simpler voting process,” and “paper ballots.” The latter is another thread that has been going since question one, though here a few “paper ballot” respondents clarified that they prefer ballots or voters’ guides printed out, but are okay with voting online. The difference in this group is between respondents who do not trust online voting inherently and those who, for various reasons, prefer to make their decisions offline but are okay with expressing those decisions using the online system. Some of the frustration of the “paper ballot” group was similar to those that could not vote because of “login issues” which is described under bureaucratic issues above in question two.
“Simpler voting process” is several suggestions rolled into one category: some respondents felt that the emails explaining how to vote were unclear, while others felt that the ballot was too long and should have been broken down into chunks so as to be managed easier, a few respondents suggested that the voting be open from one day to a week to even longer. Rarely were opinions about process explained in detail, probably due to size of the input field. A few sentences to a paragraph or two was the general length of responses – not long enough to indulge in deep discussion about how long to keep voting open. In general, the reminders were also a point of contention for a few non-voters. Sending more to aid in remembering or sending fewer to add immediacy were proposed, but like the other opinions about process, explanations did not run very long. A third suggestions, of sending reminder using different social media was brought up – this is an idea that was anticipated by Patrick Sweeney and a few others, the efficacy of which could not be measured in this survey.
Bearing in mind that the American Library Association and its election committee cannot control the country’s economy, clear a few hours in librarian’s schedules, or, on its own, get unemployed librarians fulfilling work, there are still enough items gleaned from our results that those responsible for future elections should strongly consider. Readers may draw myriad conclusions based on the results as outlined above, as well as their own perusal of the 502 responses, but what follow are my recommendations as they stand after spending many hours reading, categorizing, and analyzing the survey’s results:
Election Committee: Create an easily accessible (read: a link from the ALA main page) election home page that contains a voters’ guide that is available both in HTML and downloadable as a .pdf, links to candidate’s home pages, short videos explaining what each positions does, instructions explaining the voting process, and a “Contact Us” area for those are having trouble logging in or finding the voting email. A little link to a survey asking “How was your voting experience?” wouldn’t hurt either. After you’ve created the page, get the word out about it far and wide. If nobody knows about it, nobody will use it.
Candidates: Actively campaign! Non-voters WANT to know who you are and what you’re going to do. Put up a simple WordPress site, throw a few essays on there that tell voters more about you than your CV does. Go in person or online wherever ALA members are and engage people in discussion. ALA can only do so much to get your name out there, the onus is on you to show why you and the position you hope to fill matters.
ALA: Do whatever it takes, but please do not put so many candidates on the ballot. Are members really expected to go through forty candidates in choosing the Councilors on top of the other positions they’re voting for? It’s a lot to ask even for dedicated members. As respondents suggested, stagger the elections, extend term limits, “streamline” the organization (I interpret that as a call to cut down the number of positions, committees, round tables, task forces, and whatever other groups ALA contains). I’m not informed enough about ALA governance to give specific recommendations about this here, but I know that some people reading this will be. All I can say is next time, less candidates for Councilors please.
(Non-)Voters: It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again…ALA is not a panacea. Most folks filling volunteer positions in the organization truly care about libraries and librarians and want to help but there is no way they can come to your library and, for example, take an hour at the reference desk or edit your libguides. ALA is a national organization that lobbies for libraries on the national-level – state orgs lobby at a state level and local advocacy groups are most effective locally. The fact is that most day-to-day library funding is done at the state or local levels, not nationally. That doesn’t mean that ALA can’t do anything to help your organization or you personally. I’m a new member of ALA and a new librarian, but the folks from ALA that I’ve encountered (pretty much exclusively online since I can’t afford conferences at this point) have been eager to do what they can. Shoot them emails with your ideas, including how to make ALA more relevant to YOU (and that includes thoughts about candidates and elections). As the survey indicates, there are many reasons why people didn’t vote. Hopefully everyone will take on the responsibility to make the path to voting a simpler one.
Finally finally finally, if you filled out the survey, a BIG thank you. Without you sharing your thoughts, no one would know that non-voters thought. Also, a BIG thank you to all of those who helped distribute this survey, I read a lot in books about the power of social media and crowdsourcing, but to see it happen beats all. Way to go, folks.
All the downloadable docs together:
Results Spreadsheet (cleaned up)(.pdf, 233KB)
Results Spreadsheet (raw)(.pdf, 240KB)
The Results w/ Appendix (.pdf, 146KB) – This post as a .pdf, for readers who love to do it offline.