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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics and Certifying the Election

Don Heider

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Don Heider (@donheider) is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

Imagine for a moment that you are a member of Congress. You have spent hours cloistered in a safe space somewhere in the Capitol complex while rioters vandalize the building and attack police officers.

When both houses reconvene after hours of chaos, you face an ethical decision; whether or not to vote to certify election results.

The facts are these; there has not been one credible instance proven of voter fraud or ballot tampering in the election. Each state has certified the election results. The election officials who oversaw and certified the election were Republican, Democrat and Independent. States in question had Democrat and Republican observers who witnessed the vote tally. Several states did multiple vote recounts, showing no notable changes. The president’s attorneys scoured the country for any scrap of evidence to support numerous lawsuits filed to call the election results into question. Each lawsuit was summarily dismissed, by judges appointed by both Democrats and Republicans. The Supreme Court, including three justices appointed by the current president, saw no legal standing to take up the case.

There is no factual basis by which you can vote to object. Yet seven U.S. Senators and one hundred and thirty-eight U.S. Representatives voted to object to certifying the vote in Pennsylvania, and a similar number voted to object to certifying the vote in Arizona and Nevada.

So, on what moral or ethical principle did these Congressional representatives base their votes to object? Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith from Mississippi issued a statement that said:

“I, along with my constituents, are alarmed with the erosion of integrity of the electoral process. The people I represent do not believe the presidential election was constitutional and cannot accept the Electoral College decision; therefore, I cannot in good conscience support certification.

“What erosion of integrity? Recall that Chris Krebs, a self-described life-long Republican who led the federal government's efforts to secure the 2020 election, issued this statement from the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council & the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committees: “There is no evidence any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes or was in any way compromised.” Krebs and his colleagues of election professionals said that the November election was among the most secure in American history.

Every piece of photographic or video evidence to the contrary has been credibly explained by election officials.

The only basis for any concern about this year’s presidential election has come in the form of baseless claims from the man who lost the election.

There are several ethical principals at stake here:

Common Good

The first is the idea of the common good. The common good is the idea that in a community, in a country, there are certain things we hold in common and value. Our obligation is to work toward the common good in order to best serve all members of our community or in this case, our country. The U.S. was founded on the principal of democratic elections. The common good dictates that when a presidential candidate loses the election, for the good of the country, they accept defeat and move on. That has not happened in this election. This is a clear violation of what is best for the country. It is a clear violation of the common good.


Another ethical principal we might think about here is that of utilitarianism. This principal encourages us to minimize harm and maximize good in any given situation. In this case, we can clearly see the results of objecting to a valid election. It has resulted in huge mistrust in government, facilitated by members of Congress and some media outlets. It has resulted in a mob overrunning the Capitol. It has resulted in the death of five people and injuries to more. If someone has concern about maximizing good and minimizing harm, it would be difficult for him or her to perpetuate a lie by voting to object to a valid election. In fact, after the Capitol was overrun, several Congressional representatives made a moral choice to withdraw their objection. Maximizing good in this instance would be to vote to certify the election.

There seems to be a clear choice in this case about whether to perpetuate a harmful lie, or whether to tell voters the truth, no matter how unpopular.

After the House and Senate reconvened Wednesday, Republican Senator Mitt Romney may have said it best:  

“No Congressional-led audit will ever convince those voters, particularly when the President will continue to claim that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership. The truth is that President-elect Biden won this election. President Trump lost. Scores of courts, the President’s own Attorney General, and state election officials both Republican and Democrat have reached this unequivocal decision.

We must not be intimidated or prevented from fulfilling our constitutional duty. We must continue with the count of Electoral College votes. In light of today’s sad circumstances, I ask my colleagues, do we weigh our own political fortunes more heavily than we weigh the strength of our Republic, the strength of our democracy, and the cause of freedom? What is the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?”

Pandering to a president who cannot accept truthful, accurate election results is not only unethical, it’s a violation of these elected officials’ oath of office. It in no way maximizes good.

Upholding the Constitution and supporting a democracy with unambiguously lawful elections aligns clearly with the common good in this case.

We should call on these seven U.S. Senators and one hundred and thirty-eight U.S. Representatives who chose to support lies over truth to reverse their positions. Each could issue a simple statement for the common good: “The election was not stolen; the election was lawful.” In this way, they could affirm their role as upholding the constitution and promoting the common good. They could choose an ethical path rather than a strictly partisan path. This case seems a clear conflict of self-interest versus moral interests. The choice is up to each of them.

If we have this type of crisis involving lies and untruths for every lawful election moving forward, can our democracy survive? One hundred and forty-five members of Congress have cast their vote against democracy. It’s not too late for them to change.

Jan 12, 2021