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Why do candidates lie?By Judy Nadler
From the presidential campaign down to local city council elections, many candidates in the 2012 races seemed to have adopted the view that it's OK to lie when seeking public office. Who knows how many candidates won Tuesday based on false statements they made, either positive ones about themselves or negative ones about their opponents?
When I ran for mayor of Santa Clara, I was accused of not bothering to vote for years on school district issues. Of course, few people other than my opponent knew that I did not live in that school district, so voting there would have been illegal! I blame the politicians and their consultants for misleading campaigns, but I also believe we the voters share in that blame. Until we insist on all candidates telling the truth, and unless we begin to elect a different kind of candidate, the lying will continue.
In California, Ohio and 18 other states, it's a crime to make false statements about your opponent. Yet PolitiFact.com, in checking on the truth of the Obama and Romney ads, says some of the lies were so blatant they earned the distinction of "pants on fire," a rating opposite of "true."
Absent a formal complaint, transgressions largely are ignored. So it's no surprise that those who get elected play fast and loose with the facts once in office. What can we learn from the 2012 election? Our civic responsibility extends beyond the election, and we need to start at the local level.
Voters need to study the ballot, and consult with nonpartisan organizations like the League of Women Voters that research the issues, making recommendations without political bias. Over time, we can pick better local candidates, because term limits means council members often end up as senators and members of Congress.
We can press them to back up their statements, explain how they can accomplish what they have promised, and speak of their own record rather than tearing down an opponent's.
They can sign an "honor code" stating that they will uphold the truth throughout the campaign. Research shows that students who read the Ten Commandments before taking a test more often chose the ethical path.
We should insist on accountability within campaign staffs. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cannot possibly know everything that is being distributed to voters, but someone on their staff should. Lying on a campaign at any level should be grounds for being fired.
We should do a better job of screening candidates and checking references so we can discern a potential candidate's character. But even candidates with integrity still will bear scrutiny. If a slate mailer is funded in a candidate's name, or if an ad run by an independent group distorts an opponent's record, then that candidate should be the first to renounce the mailer or ad. If they don't, voters need to raise their objections loudly and often.
With the election over, our work as engaged citizens begins.
Judy Nadler is senior fellow of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. She is the former mayor of Santa Clara.
This article appeared originally in The San Francisco Chronicle, 11/6/2012