During my three-year stint as opinion editor at The Ann Arbor News, I grew to dread election season. The dread was due in part to the nastiness that elections often bring out in people – nastiness that typically lies dormant, or is at least well-cloaked by social convention.
On the upside, elections really make it clear that we live in a democracy. They elicit a spurt of energy and passion from the electorate, as voters cheer on their candidates like racing fans at Northville Downs cheer their horse-racing picks. If enthusiasm among voters for civic affairs were sustained throughout the rest of the year, that would really be something. That’s when we expect the thoroughbreds who win the horse race of the election to transform into draft horses and do the work that matters. But cheers for the draft horse are rare, and it only takes a few days post-election for most residents to lose interest until the next campaign.
Part of the election horse race is endorsements by news publications. At this point, I hasten to add – somewhat defensively – that my tenure at The News as opinion editor did not coincide with either of the Bush endorsements, nor with the now-infamous non-endorsement in the McCain/Obama race of 2008. That’s not to assign responsibility for those endorsements to the opinion editor at the time – that’s not how endorsements at newspapers are determined. They result from a decision made by an editorial board, not just one person.
I had always questioned the value of endorsements, and my work on The News’ editorial board re-enforced those doubts. There were three of us – the publisher, editor-in-chief and opinion editor – who made the decisions, sometimes after a great deal of discussion, but often not. Our decisions relied primarily on information gathered by News reporters, along with relatively brief editorial board meetings with those candidates who were gracious enough to endure our questions. Often, it was the one and only time some of us had ever met the candidates – even those who were already elected officials.
It should be obvious that I’m not proud of any of that. Nor do I imagine that journalists who participate in similar endorsement processes at other publications can take much professional pride in adding to the electoral horse race in this way. So I’m glad that as a matter of policy at The Ann Arbor Chronicle, we’ve decided not to make endorsements.
We didn’t make the decision lightly. Readers have asked about it – some even encouraging us to make endorsements – because that’s what serious publications do, right? And ironically, I’m much better informed about the incumbents than I ever was as an editor at The News. I have sat through scores of public meetings since we launched The Chronicle nearly two years ago, and edited scores more reports of meetings that someone else survived.
So why isn’t The Chronicle making endorsements? Actually, we already do. We endorse democracy, and independent thought. We make that endorsement by reporting out in detail on our local government in action. We care about why and how and when elected and appointed officials make decisions, and we convey that information to Chronicle readers. When you understand what’s happening in the government that your local tax dollars support, you’re equipped with a foundation from which to make your own decisions.
Your vote will be informed by other things as well, of course. I’d bet that most of us can point to a single main reason for why we vote for a particular candidate over another. Maybe it’s because you’re voting against a candidate, rather than really for their opponent. Maybe you know them to be a liar. Maybe you disagree with too many of their policy positions. Maybe you’ve just received way too many pieces of campaign literature from a candidate, and you can’t imagine a candidate who’s spending that kind of money to get your vote is the kind of person you want representing you. All you know is: Not that one.
Or maybe you’re actually voting for the candidate whose oval you blacken on election day. Maybe that candidate voted for an ordinance you wanted to see passed. Or maybe that candidate voted against a controversial residential development you also opposed. Or maybe that candidate knocked on your door and you liked the way she shook your hand and looked you in the eye. Maybe it’s because your guy is a glass-eating clown.
Money, in the form of campaign contributions, is one type of endorsement that’s useful for keeping track of the horse race. The basic horse race question is: Who raised more money? But it’s worth reflecting in more detail about who’s giving money to the candidates – are the contributors people or organizations that you know and respect? Are you impressed by the ability to raise sizable amounts – or do you find that distasteful? Are you more impressed by the number of people who have unrecognizable names making small donations, or by large donations from recognized opinion leaders in the community?
For candidates in city of Ann Arbor races, Chronicle intern Hayley Byrnes converted the scanned .pdf campaign finance filings on the county clerk’s website to something more tractable: [Excel workbook, one worksheet per candidate] [searchable .pdf file listing all contributions ]
The same organizations that contribute to campaigns often make explicit endorsements of their own – for candidates, it’s just another way to tell voters that they’re winning the horse race. Does it matter to you that one candidate gets more endorsements than another? Or does it just matter what kind of endorsements they’re getting – labor, business, or environmental groups? One Ann Arborite once told me that she simply votes for whatever candidates the local chapter of the Sierra Club endorsed. To which I said, “Really?? Huh.”
But, in fact, unless we know the candidates well, most of us probably do have just one equally marginal reason why we vote for them. And in the primary elections, when political ideologies of candidates generally align, there are only a few races in which there’s a clear choice. Many times, honestly, it’s a crap shoot.
So read as much as you can – you can find The Chronicle’s reports of primary election forums here. Talk to as many people as you can, watch where the money comes from, and pick your own reason to vote for a candidate. But don’t rely on just one source to tell you who to vote for, especially not a newspaper’s editorial board.
And more importantly, do all those things after the election is over, too. Paying attention when the people you elect are doing the work you’ve chosen them to do is the best way to ensure that your vote counts.
Elections are horse races, but governance is when the fields get plowed. And that’s something we all should endorse.
Mary Morgan is publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.