Column: Why Not Endorsements?

Elections are horse races; governance plows the field

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.

Hank Beekley with his team of draft horses – a Belgian and a Shire – disks the field. The hospital building is visible in the background. The view is roughly to the northwest. (Photos by the writer.)

Chronicle file photo of Hank Beekley with his team of draft horses – a Belgian and a Shire – as they disk the field on the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital campus. They were preparing the acreage for gardens that will supply fresh vegetables for the hospital cafeteria and for a farmers market. As non-city residents, neither the Belgian nor the Shire is contesting a city council race this election cycle.

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.


  1. July 31, 2010 at 11:43 am | permalink


    Good column. I never took newspaper endorsements seriously, especially because most of the time you knew who papers would endorse before the endorsements were published. In Detroit, the News almost always endorsed Republicans and the Freep Democrats and it was all so predictable. I must confess that I occasionally voted against a candidate our local Mellus paper endorsed if I knew nothing else about the candidate, reasoning that since the Mellus editorialists were idiots anyone they endorsed must be an idiot too.

    Thanks again to you and Dave for your through and comprehensive reporting.

  2. By Patricia Lesko
    July 31, 2010 at 1:19 pm | permalink

    Great idea to make the campaign finance information SEARCHABLE. But that Larry Kestenbaum would do the same thing. I’ll link this to it on my campaign web site. I tweeted a link to this piece, and have added the link to a post on my blog, as well.

  3. By ChuckL
    July 31, 2010 at 1:35 pm | permalink


    I was glad when the snooze came out and endorsed Bush in 2004. Why? I never supported Republican George Bush so how do I end up liking the endorsement? The answer is simple, I’ve always believed local news papers had too much power to shape public opinion and I know most of the people in Ann Arbor vote Democratic, so I figured this move would make the News irrelevant, which seems to have become the case!

  4. By Rod Johnson
    July 31, 2010 at 1:37 pm | permalink

    Many thanks for the Excel spreadsheet! Why not put it on Google docs, so everyone can see it and search it?

  5. By Dave Askins
    July 31, 2010 at 1:44 pm | permalink

    Re: searchability of campaign finance reports

    Earlier this week, The Chronicle queried the county clerk’s office on this topic and received the following reply from Matt Yankee, who’s acting elections director:

    As for filing statements (I’m assuming you mean campaign finance here)… the forms are available online as fillable PDF files, so I know many candidates do it that way. In additions, the State has a program for electronic filings — I believe it is called MERTS. Some candidates (or their treasurers) who are comfortable with that program will use it to compile reports that come into our office; however, the State still has not given counties the option to accept the filings electronically.

    For state level races, candidates apparently can file electronically using the MERTS software. By way of example, if you start with the Michigan Secretary of State Searchable Archive you can find your way to HTML formatted (thus searchable) results for Rebekah Warren or Pam Byrnes. [No relation to Chronicle intern Hayley Byrnes.]

    For candidates who use an electronic tool to compile and print out their campaign finance reports, they themselves already have the option to generate electronic files for dissemination to the general public.

    I would look forward to the time when the state does not merely allow county election officials to accept electronic filings, but requires it.

  6. By Dave Askins
    July 31, 2010 at 1:48 pm | permalink

    Re: “Why not put it on Google docs, so everyone can see it and search it?”

    Okay. [link]

  7. By Rod Johnson
    July 31, 2010 at 5:06 pm | permalink

    I love this place! Next time I’ll ask for a martini too. :)

  8. July 31, 2010 at 5:36 pm | permalink

    A thoughtful and well written piece Mary, as usual!

  9. By Steve Bean
    July 31, 2010 at 11:44 pm | permalink

    What Lisa (#8) said.

    Coincidentally, I decided several days ago that I won’t be providing yard signs. Like Mary, I tend to question the value of things, and I see little value in a placard with my name on it planted in someone’s lawn.

    A couple of years ago, when I first considered someday being a candidate for mayor, I had fun with potential yard-sign phrases like, “Be an independent thinker”, “Be an engaged citizen”, “Be an active participant”, “Be an open-minded listener”. For a while I thought of them as possible reminders to myself. I see now that I don’t need them.

    Of course, this raises the question of what to “raise funds” for. After the deluge of redundant campaign material in my mailbox and door handle this week, I’m thinking that I’ll spare everyone (including the trees) come the general election season. If you’d like to contribute to my campaign financially, you’re welcome to. Suggestions for how to use the money would be appreciated. (Please email me. I’ll also have a web site up soon.)

    As for endorsements, while I won’t be seeking any, I’ll gladly fill out questionnaires of groups and respond to questions by reporters and others so they can convey my responses to citizens.

    Steve Be an
    Independent Candidate for Mayor of Ann Arbor

  10. July 31, 2010 at 11:54 pm | permalink

    The Secretary of State’s site is now super accessible with the MERTS data being required of all state level candidates. Using the “Search Contributions Analysis” link off the campaign finance database main page [link] you can do all sorts of searches, including targeting as narrowly as finding the contribution history of an individual donor. Great for transparency.

  11. By cosmonıcan
    August 1, 2010 at 8:55 am | permalink

    re #9: No yard signs? Why not just concede the election now; do you really think you are that well known, or that in an environment with no newspapers that people will somehow stumble on you? Bad idea.

  12. By Steve Bean
    August 1, 2010 at 11:09 am | permalink

    @11, ‘A sign with my name on it would help people to know me.’ Is that true? ‘People planning on voting wouldn’t be aware, come the election, that there’s another candidate for mayor.’ Is that true? ‘Voters open to electing a new mayor won’t learn about their choices.’ Is that true? Voters committed to the incumbent would be swayed by yard signs.’ Is that true?

  13. August 1, 2010 at 11:24 am | permalink

    Yard signs are often the first vote in an election and help the populace to understand what the group inclinations are. “If so many people are displaying those signs, there must be something to it.” I would advise any political campaign to have a vigorous sign program.

    When our present mayor first surfaced in public life by opposing the expansion of the Leslie Science Center (it would have been near his then home), he and his associates put out lots of yard signs that quickly showed a high acceptance of their position. Other historians help me – didn’t they say “B is bad”? It was a vote on a referendum B. They prevailed.

    BTW, I have a number of old yard signs in my attic from my past council campaign. If anyone needs wires, I’d be happy to pass them along. Reuse comes before recycle.

  14. By Steve Bean
    August 1, 2010 at 11:48 am | permalink

    @11: “in an environment with no newspapers” Is that true? And what those newspapers, both print and online, won’t be reporting on November 1st is who is doing what to whose sign.

    Maybe someone will take Vivienne up on her offer and make their own. They might think of it as being similar to the difference between a form letter and a hand-written note. Maybe their neighbors would see it that way, too.

    @13: If I were running a “political campaign” I might follow your advice, Vivienne. :-) As an historian, how do you see group inclinations having served us in the past? I suspect that it’s far from all positive. You might also consider the difference between referenda and office elections.

  15. By cosmonıcan
    August 1, 2010 at 12:09 pm | permalink

    re #14: Steve, I will email you a sign design, use it if you like, pitch it if you don’t. If you like it, just make it available on your site or on request; it will be 11 x 8.5, no color, people can print it on any printer. They can tape it to their door, put it on a tree, the back window of a car, it won’t withstand weather but it will get your name out there to people who don’t follow the news, and serve as an informal poll of your support.

    I have wires here too, from Woods and Schmerl signs among others, but you can’t have them — they’re in my garden supporting BEANS.

  16. August 1, 2010 at 12:20 pm | permalink

    Steve, thanks for the title but I’m not a(n) historian, just an observer. So you are not running a political campaign? Usually that is the consequence of filing for office.

    People in campaigns often reuse the wires from signs and there is a sort of barter economy for them. The printed signs themselves can be purchased with or without wires and are much cheaper if used with old wires. It is not as quaint as a “hand-written note”.

    Regarding group inclinations, elections (whether for candidates or issues) are the result of many complex choices and behavioral effects and group inclinations are part of that. The art of politics is to make those group inclinations move in your own direction. As to how they have served us in the past, one can only wish that a very few Ralph Nader voters had chosen Al Gore in Florida back in 2000. (I know the last sentence is a snarky reply, but what a question!)

  17. By David
    August 1, 2010 at 12:42 pm | permalink

    I am glad that you are not providing election endorsements. This deepens my belief that you are trying to be very fair in your reports and that they are not biased your political leanings. Keep up the excellent work!

  18. By Steve Bean
    August 1, 2010 at 1:50 pm | permalink

    @16: Apparently I misinterpreted your phrase “other historians”.

    “So you are not running a political campaign? Usually that is the consequence of filing for office.” So it seems to me. The main consequence of filing for office is getting one’s name on the ballot. The rest is up to the candidate and, more so, the voters. Maybe they’ll run a “political campaign” on my behalf (or their behalf), or maybe they’ll just learn about me and my perspective and decide whether or not to vote for me. For my part, my intention is to provide information as clearly as possible.

    I’ve got some work to do, so I’ll leave you all to ponder your choices in Tuesday’s primary (and beyond, per Mary’s sound advice.)

  19. By jcp2
    August 1, 2010 at 2:17 pm | permalink

    Steve, I like your platform, and you may be dead serious about the issues affecting the community, but judging by the lack of a visible campaign in traditional terms, you don’t seem to be serious about winning. I would rather cast my vote for the better of two subobptimal candidates that are likely, in my judgment, to win rather than for the best of all choices that again, in my judgment, are long shots and a waste of my vote.

  20. By David
    August 1, 2010 at 5:35 pm | permalink

    I am confused why all of you are worrying about Steve’s campaign. He is not affected by the primaries. There is no current need for him to get involved in those discussions. I am also sure he was not invited to the primary candidate forums. Once the primaries have been completed, the general election campaigns can begin. It is at that point he should start his election campaign, if he is really interested in running for mayor.

  21. By DrData
    August 1, 2010 at 7:45 pm | permalink

    Related to Vivienne’s comment about the usefulness of yard signs, I find the donor database interesting to look at.

    Suni has more contributors in Ward #1 than the incumbent. In Ward #5, the challenger has very few contributors, especially once you subtract out the “slate” donations.

    I think I make independent decisions, but in the old days of newspaper ads, the Vote for X with the supporters in small print were effective ads. These were similar to noticing which neighborhoods in a ward were supporting one candidate and which ones were supporting the other.

    Of course, it is up to the voter to look at the candidates’ positions on issues, but taking the advice/lead from people you trust is not a bad start.

    This is a long-winded way of saying that people will not be searching out Bean’s positions unless they’ve heard of him.

    I think this is a year that folks are looking for an alternative so get some energy and follow through with your original intent.

  22. By Dave Askins
    August 1, 2010 at 8:31 pm | permalink

    Re:[21] “Suni has more contributors in Ward #1 than the incumbent.”

    Actually, Sumi Kailasapathy show contributions from 29 different people, contrasted with incumbent Sandi Smith, who shows contributions from 46 donors.

  23. By cosmonıcan
    August 1, 2010 at 8:38 pm | permalink

    re #12: I re-read that, didn’t realize you had so many questions. In answer I would have to say yes, all of those statements are true.

    Marketing is a powerful tool, and you have to create the appearance of a mob of supporters to attract more — and they will ditch an incumbent if they know who you are and give them enough motivation.

    One complaint I do have about you is that here, and in other blogs where I have read you, you like to play the devil’s advocate a bit too long, often until someone gets fed up and has to pin you down. If you came to the party, then dance, no one’s going to do your dancing for you; and if you are going to wait around like a wallflower and expect hosanna’s, you may as well go home.

  24. By Rod Johnson
    August 1, 2010 at 11:55 pm | permalink

    Steve, it’s true that your stance here seems awfully diffident. Voters may be put off by candidates who want it too badly, but I don’t think diffidence is a quality most people are looking for in a mayor either.

  25. By Steve Bean
    August 2, 2010 at 12:23 am | permalink

    @23: No expectations here, except that I will be judged. That’s what we do, we judge each other. I look forward to more of it and to more advice and suggestions.

    @19: You don’t seem to be serious about me winning either! What I’m serious about is the community winning, and the same old approaches aren’t likely to achieve that, given the circumstances we face. You don’t have to get used to me doing things differently, but it might be easier. You’ll be seeing it for at least three more months.

  26. August 2, 2010 at 7:43 am | permalink

    Steve: Do you have a website? A blog? (If you do, those are both wonderful mechanisms by which the “independent thinker” can judge you and/or give you advice and suggestions–so that ultimately the community can win.) If so, could you please provide links? Thanks.

  27. August 2, 2010 at 8:35 am | permalink

    Great writing Mary.

    With the number of absentee ballots issued increasing each year, if only 25% of the voters show up tomorrow, this years elections may already have been won or lost. The smart candidates have already done targeted mailing to absentee voters as they know they will actually vote. The City Clerk will provide anyone that requests them a list of absentee voters updated weekly.


  28. August 2, 2010 at 8:45 am | permalink


    While I often disagree with your perspective, I certainly think you are a thoughtful person and I for one will consider your candidacy seriously. I will vote for you before a polarizing figure like Pat Lesko and I might very well vote for you before a past-his-expiration-date Hieftje. Good luck!

  29. By Dave Askins
    August 2, 2010 at 8:54 am | permalink

    Re: [28] “With the number of absentee ballots issued increasing each year …”

    Here’s some absentee ballots returned numbers to hang on that:

    2578 for August 2006
    2803 for August 2008
    3092 so far for August 2010

    Re:[28] “The City Clerk will provide anyone that requests them a list of absentee voters updated weekly.”

    It’s actually daily that the spreadsheet gets emailed out!

  30. August 2, 2010 at 9:03 am | permalink

    Dave, have you done an analysis of what percentage of the total vote the absentee ballots were for 2006 and 2008?