Ruminations on SU election endorsements

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Every year at roughly this time, eager prospective student politicians run around clamouring for support in the Students' Union election. Every year the hallways are wallpapered with posters. Every year roughly nine out of 10 students summarily ignore the election and don't vote. Nevertheless, the ones that are actively involved with the election pick up the Gauntlet, read our coverage and then criticize our practice of endorsing candidates.

Endorsements are tricky. Each candidate is brought before a panel of well-dressed Gauntlet staffers -- which is a rarity, if you know us -- and asked a variety of questions tailored to the position they're running for. The panel itself isn't designed to be nerve-wracking, but we've seen a wide array of nervous reactions ranging from rashes to stammering to straight-up verbal diarrhoea. The panelists aim to take into account the candidate's interview, experience and platform in making picks instead of just relying on the 20 minute snapshot that we get of them -- as a result several really good candidates have been recommended despite being extremely anxious during their interview.

In previous years, readers and candidates alike have criticized our endorsements as deciding who wins the election. This argument is flawed in two critical ways. First and foremost, the Gauntlet aims to educate and inform students and community members at the University of Calgary. The elections are no different. The aim of our coverage is to allow prospective voters to make informed decisions. The supplement was actually reframed several years ago to its current individual panelist recommendation format; prior to that the panel simply labelled candidates as "qualified" or made vague comments on how strong they would be in the position. The latest approach aims to get as many as possible to read the entire supplement and make their own decisions. The obvious criticism of this approach is that very few people are likely to read several thousand words about student government, but very few people vote anyhow, so why not aim to make those few voters reasonably well-informed? If a few curious voters pick up the paper and learn a bit about student government, we've achieved our goal.

The other thing to note is that Gauntlet endorsements don't really seem to have very much influence. For the past 18 years we've been talking to candidates and telling the community how we're voting and over that period we've endorsed candidates who won executive races about 78 per cent of the time. Before anyone concludes that equates with influence, it's likely that most of those candidates would have won if there were no endorsements. For better or worse, SU elections are contests measuring a very specific kind of popularity. The people who vote are people actively involved in student government and clubs or who live in residence. Voters tend to vote for people they know, a fact attested to by Gauntlet contributor and current academic commissioner Daniel Pagan, who garnered more votes in the last election than anybody else because he knows more people.

Over the past five years, only three candidates won executive positions without a majority of the Gauntlet panel endorsing them. All three of them were qualified candidates who, thanks to their involvement in residence and clubs, knew a ton of people on campus. On the flip-side, those who won with endorsements were also qualified candidates who knew a lot of people. Good candidates with connections on campus will win regardless of what newspaper writers think of their campaign, just like bad candidates will usually lose regardless of the Gauntlet pointing out that they're bad. Voters who are committed to a candidate probably won't be swayed by our opinions.

The silver lining of the U of C's really low voter turnout is that voters tend to actually know about the issues and be informed about the races. For years when contentious issues bring in new voters, the Gauntlet hopes to get them up to speed so they can make up their own minds.