Indy Week, a weekly newspaper based in Durham, is one of the few organizations that endorses candidates in Orange County elections. Candidates say Indy endorsements are important to their campaigns, but how much do they actually impact voters?
This year, Indy endorsed Susan Romaine, candidate for the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, and the two incumbents running for reelection: Damon Seils and Sammy Slade. The three were successful, according to unofficial vote counts.
Incumbent Chapel Hill Town Council member Michael Parker was endorsed by Indy this year, along with incumbent Jessica Anderson and newcomers Sue Hunter and Tai Huynh. Parker, Anderson and Huynh nabbed seats, according to unofficial vote counts.
Indy Week Editor Jeff Billman said the process for choosing which candidates to endorse generally involves himself, staff writers and sometimes freelance writers. That process begins about a month before they choose their endorsees when a detailed questionnaire is sent out to the candidates running for office. Candidates have about two weeks to respond, Billman said.
Then their answers are evaluated, follow-up calls are made and sources in the community are contacted.
“Essentially, we try to find out as much as we can about these folks, and then we make a decision,” Billman said. “Ultimately, our reporters and whoever else is involved in the decision-making process make recommendations or they add input, but the final decision, for better or worse, tends to rest with me.”
For voters, candidates say Indy endorsements seem to play a large role in their voting process.
“I have worked at the polls pretty consistently for the past two weeks, and I’ve noticed that there are a good number of voters who do carry the Indy Week endorsements with them to the polls,” Romaine said.
Billman said it’s hard for him to know how much Indy’s endorsements matter to voters.
“We're trying to pick the best candidates,” Billman said. “So if we're picking the best candidates, then voters are picking the best candidate. So it's hard to know whether our endorsements are mattering or whether we’re just picking the candidates who would win anyway.”
At the polls, voters have mixed feelings about Indy endorsements.
“I won’t lie, I was somewhat of a low-information voter,” said Eric Baer of Carrboro. “I rely primarily on newspaper endorsements when deciding who to vote for. The Indy Week usually has a good set of endorsements for local elections. Whenever I have had time to research the candidates I usually have agreed with their conclusions.”
Romaine said, as a candidate running for elected office for the first time, the endorsement was especially important to her campaign.
“The Indy Week is highly respected in the community as a source for endorsements, and I think that’s because the process they use to come up with their endorsements is very rigorous,” Romaine said. “I think the community realizes that, as they indicated with my endorsement, it comes through their understanding of the role that candidate has played in the community.”
In Carrboro in 2015, Indy didn’t endorse candidates because all incumbents were running unopposed. Seils said he didn't need an endorsement in 2015, but since there is some competition this year, the endorsement was helpful.
“Any endorsement is good,” Seils said. “In a campaign, it’s always good to get your name out there as much as possible, and endorsements help make that happen.”
Matt Clements, one of three Carrboro Board of Aldermen candidates who was not endorsed by Indy, said it would have changed his campaign as the only candidate not running as a Democrat.
“If Indy had endorsed me, I wouldn’t have needed to campaign,” Clements said.
In this year's elections, Indy-endorsed, unopposed incumbent Lydia Lavelle won the race for Carrboro mayor.
Parker said he thinks it’s hard to tell how much Indy endorsements affect voters in Orange County. But, he appreciated the recognition.
“It’s nice to get the endorsement and to have your hard work and your goals recognized,” Parker said.
Parker and Anderson were also endorsed by Indy in 2015. Chapel Hill Alliance for a Liveable Town, another organization that endorses Chapel Hill candidates, endorsed Anderson this year but not Parker.
For Chapel Hill mayor, Indy endorsed incumbent Pam Hemminger this year. Hemminger also won her mayoral race. She said Indy gives voters another source for election information.
“I think (Indy's endorsements) matter to some people,” Hemminger said. “Voters have been telling me at the polls that they just didn’t know where to go to get information. So, some of them go there.”
In 2017, Hemminger, running then unopposed and as an incumbent, also got Indy’s endorsement. However, in 2015 when Hemminger was in her first race for Chapel Hill mayor and running against then-incumbent mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, Indy backed Kleinschmidt.
“In 2015, they gave me a thumbs-up for being an experienced leader, so we were able to capitalize on that,” Hemminger said. “I think that helped. It definitely was a resource that people went to. They were bringing it with them to the polls.”
Hemminger said in 2015 she made a point to try to approach and talk with voters coming to the polls with their Indy Week.
Some voters didn't seek information about endorsements and instead chose to do their own research. However, others said these endorsements played a role in how they cast their votes.
“I checked the Indy Week endorsements, so that’s influenced my voting,” said Carrboro resident Lexi White. “I don’t know about other individuals that were endorsing.”
But for candidates, any exposure they can get is helpful to their campaign.
“Candidates are always looking to have more exposure and to get people to promote them,” Hemminger said. “So people are always trying to get the endorsements in hopes of aligning with values, but also just getting voters to know who they are.”
Suzannah Perry, Brittany McGee and Elizabeth Egan contributed reporting.
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