A peek behind the Sun Sentinel’s endorsement process — and a call for help | Rosemary O’Hara
I’ve always liked voting on Election Day. I find it ennobling to stand in a line of citizens preparing to participate in our great democracy. And I like scanning the crowd to see who might be holding the newspaper’s endorsements.
But voting has changed. Every day is Election Day during the week-plus of Early Voting, which ends this evening. And absentee voting has become so popular it’s now called Vote by Mail.
By Saturday morning, more than 4.4 million Floridians had already voted — nearly 1 million more than at this point in the last mid-term election, reports Daniel Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida.
While voting is now easier for voters, the timetable is tougher for me, as editor of the Sun Sentinel editorial page. Ballots for the Nov. 6 election went out just five weeks after the Aug. 26 primary. That’s a short window to carefully assess all the candidates and questions on a five-page, double-sided ballot.
Yet as soon as those ballots showed up in mailboxes, my phone started ringing from people who expected to see our endorsements. It’s not that they planned to follow all of our recommendations, mind you. Some assured me they would do just the opposite. Still, they wanted to see what we had to say.
That’s how it should be. The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board is not trying to tell you what to think. But we consider it a public service to tell you what we think, after researching the candidates and evaluating their records, character and potential.
Unlike the endorsements offered by unions, business groups and advocacy organizations, we have no hidden agenda. We always explain ourselves. We try to discern, who’s best prepared? Which judicial candidate would you want to appear before as a plaintiff or defendant? Which local or state candidate would best listen to citizens, ensure good governance and protect the public purse?
For the primary and general elections, we interviewed 221 candidates, including 132 candidates for mayor or city commission in 19 cities. It was an enormous lift to schedule the interviews, gather the questionnaires, research the candidates, and write and edit the pieces — while producing our daily digital and print offerings.
Some days I attended five rounds of candidate interviews. We’ve found it helps to bring candidates in together because they hold each other accountable, which lets us better assess their knowledge and temperament. On rare occasions, we endorsed someone unable to attend, whom we interviewed later.
Participating in the process was Sun Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, editorial writer Dave Lyons and former editorial writer Andy Reid, who left for another job about a month ago. I tell myself his departure had nothing to do with the tidal wave of questionnaires he was managing.
I also recruited a team of seasoned, retired journalists to help. They included former Sun Sentinel editorial page editor Kingsley Guy, former Miami Herald and Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton, former Post editorial page editor Randy Schultz, former Tampa Bay Times deputy editorial page editor Martin Dyckman, and my husband, Tom O’Hara, a former managing editor of the Palm Beach Post and Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Sun Sentinel reporters attended some of our sessions, but they always left the room before we began our deliberations. A long-standing journalistic firewall exists between those who write news and those who write opinion. We have no influence over how News covers the election, and reporters have no influence over the editorial board’s endorsements.
Is the process perfect? No. We wound up rescinding one judicial endorsement, and were asked to rescind more in recent days. People said we made big mistakes in the Margate, Pompano Beach and Hallandale Beach city elections.
Sometimes we found it tough to pick a candidate because the field was so strong. Other times, we held our noses to pick the best of a poor lot.
Many readers think we’re too liberal, though we endorsed a number of Republican candidates this year and opposed a number of ill-considered tax hikes.
Like our region, we skew socially liberal. Perhaps more than our region, we skew fiscally conservative. The answer to that question will be revealed with the results of Broward County’s sales-tax referendum. Its backers are counting on tax-and-spend Democrats to push the tax over the top. Broward needs more money for transportation, but we believe the 30-year tax will create a $16-billion slush fund that won’t come close to delivering what’s promised.
None of our recommendations has led to the kind of uproar we faced six years ago after endorsing Mitt Romney for president in Florida’s bluest region. I received a lot of “I‘m canceling my subscription” calls that year. Because of such calls, a number of newspapers are backing away from endorsements. On the flip side, I’ve seen a number of must-read opinion pages become irrelevant for refusing to take a stand.
In truth, we’re a middle-of-the-road editorial board. Since 1980, we’ve endorsed the Republican presidential candidate five times and endorsed the Democratic candidate five times.
That said, we know we have the least impact on races at the top of the ticket. A couple of weeks ago, a poll showed all but three percent of Floridians had made up their minds on the races for governor and U.S. Senate. Even still, people want to see how we make our case — as a statement of our values and an assessment of a candidate’s job application.
Our online traffic numbers show this year’s runaway hit is our take on whether to retain a Florida Supreme Court justice and three judges on the Fourth District Court of Appeals. I never imagined a merit-retention endorsement would go viral. I chalk it up to voters seeking to be informed and searching for credible information on less-sexy ballot questions.
Another big driver of online traffic is our assessment of the state constitutional amendments. I’m happy about that because what you see with these amendments is not always what you get.
Take Amendment 3, for example. It’s not about the “Voter Control of Gambling.” It’s about protecting the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s casino monopoly outside of South Florida, and about Disney World protecting its convention business from new resort casinos in South Florida. The two have spent about $40 million pushing this initiative. Meanwhile, the will of voters in eight counties — who’ve passed referendums approving slot machines — remains ignored.
Our judicial recommendations are also driving considerable traffic. In these races, we tend to disfavor candidates in solo practice, many of whom appear to be looking for a job with better pay and benefits. We’re nervous about those endorsed by police unions and advocacy groups. In a coin toss between qualified candidates, we favor diversity on the bench.
If there’s one message I can leave you with, it’s this: our community needs a better process for vetting judicial candidates, who are restricted in what they can say about themselves and one another.
It’s tough to discern the caliber of some of these candidates, a complaint we hear from people within the legal community. The Broward County Bar Association could help by conducting an attorney survey on current judges, as its counterpart does in Palm Beach County. We also like the rigorous vetting process done by the Judicial Nominating Commission, though the ultimate appointments are ridiculously political. If you’ve got a better idea for vetting candidates seeking election to the bench, I’m all ears.
Finally, not an election goes by that my phone doesn’t ring from people who want to know about the candidates running for the Soil and Water Conservation Districts. These offices don’t do much and so are easy to ignore. But this year, as a last-gasp testament to our fortitude, we even weighed in there. And our online traffic shows you appreciated it.
As I said, how we vote has changed. So fearing a long line on Tuesday, I cast my ballot on Saturday. Behind me, I heard a volunteer checking in a young man excitedly shout out: “First time voter!” And I proudly walked out wearing my “I Voted Early” sticker.
I used to want everyone to vote. Now, I only want informed people to vote. Our democracy depends on an informed citizenry.
So do your homework. As part of that, check out our deep-dive assessments at www.. But check out multiple sources. And be wary of any far-out information published nowhere else.
Reach Sun Sentinel Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara at rohara-sentinel or on Twitter .