October Surprise: Many Multnomah County Voters Oppose Library Bond, and It’s Unlikely to Pass

“Part of me is having a tough time believing that voters are going to turn down a library measure. I do think the library is a beloved institution in a community.”

Checking out a haul from the Kenton Library. (Brian Burk)

A recent poll of likely Portland-area voters showed the broad support for tax measures that characterizes this city. But it also contained one eyebrow-raising result: The Multnomah County library bond is polling well below 50% support and is poised to fail.

Between Oct. 7 and 11, Portland polling firm DHM Research surveyed 1,000 likely metro-area voters on behalf of Oregon Public Broadcasting, which first reported the results. The poll has a margin of error of 3.1%.

The library bond on the November ballot, Measure 26-211, would build a flagship library in Gresham, renovate seven other library branches, add gigabit-speed internet to all libraries, and install mechanical sorting equipment for books and other library materials. The $387 million bond, paid for over nine years, would add an estimated $123 a year to the property tax bill for a home with the county's median assessed value.

The measure is currently underwater—more voters oppose it than support it, 44% to 39%. (About 17% of voters remain undecided.) Those are markedly poor numbers for a tax measure in a poll taken three weeks before Election Day—especially a measure that faces no organized opposition.

WW asked DHM Research political director John Horvick for his interpretation of the results. He says while he feels confident about the poll and the sample, he's shocked.

"Part of me is having a tough time believing that voters are going to turn down a library measure," Horvick says. "I do think the library is a beloved institution in a community."

Horvick attributes the weak support to a long list of tax measures—six on the ballot for Multnomah County voters—during a pandemic that has slugged the economy. He suspects voters may have decided a library system expansion is their lowest priority, especially when existing branches are mostly closed to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

He notes one startling phenomenon: The measure polled worst in the parts of the county it's supposed to benefit most.

In the city of Portland, the measure has 41% support. However, in Multnomah County outside the city of Portland, it got only 29% support. That includes places like Gresham and Fairview, Horvick says.

If the bond passes, a new 95,000-square-foot flagship library would be built in Gresham, but 56% of voters living there are opposed.

"That means those in Gresham are not aware or not too excited about the fact that Portland is planning on building a library in their community. But I can't tell why," Horvick says. "It's noticeable that the parts of the community that would get the largest investments are the parts of the community that are most opposed."

Another reason, he says, could be the way the tax measure is being promoted by the campaign, which he noticed highlights internet access as one of the primary benefits.

"As a voter, I'm struck about how much [the campaign] is leaning into internet access," Horvick says. "Maybe that's the best message, but it's a big tax measure to focus on internet access."

The measure does relatively better among college graduates, which make up about half the electorate. But among those with a high school diploma or less, it only has 19% support, Horvick says.

That's another bad sign for the measure: The voters who still haven't made up their minds are mostly in a demographic that's skeptical. Twenty-three percent of voters with a high school diploma or less are undecided, compared to 18% of those with some college and 14% who have a college degree.

"A lot of undecided voters are lower-educated voters, and they are overwhelmingly against it," Horvick says. "If we assume they break the same way as others like them already voting, you'd think most of them would go to no."

A spokesperson for the Yes for Our Libraries campaign expects support to grow as voters learn more about the measure. (The polling was conducted before most campaign mailers were sent and TV ads began airing.)

"We are confident voters are supporting the library bond as they learn what it delivers for their library branches across the county," said Rachael Bowen, "including installing high-speed internet at all branches and expanding library space so there is more room for programs for job seekers and kids are no longer turned away from reading activities. The library bond provides the things we need most for the people who need it the most."

Horvick sees little room for optimism.

"Part of me just says, 'It's the library, though, and people like our library system.' Maybe this is where people are looking for one place to say no," Horvick says. "I would say it's in a lot of trouble and unlikely to pass."

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