Creating an Informed Electorate
Campaign claims need fact checking
Hana Callaghan directs the Government Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The opinions expressed are her own.
Brace yourself. Election season is here and the campaign ad onslaught is upon us! Recently, I was asked to comment on a race for a law enforcement position where one candidate claimed that his opponent, a law enforcement officer, was caught up in a police sweep of a brothel in Las Vegas over 11 years ago. My gut reaction was, “How awful! How could an officer of the law violate the law by visiting a house of prostitution?” And then I paused and thought to myself that before I let my gut make political decisions for me, I should run this charge through the same analysis I advise candidates to make when deciding whether a political communication they are contemplating is ethical.
Our political process is born out of the ethical ideal of creating an informed electorate. It follows that ethical campaign communications are designed to inform voters about matters pertinent to their voting decision. It’s the campaign’s task to introduce the candidate and educate the voters about the candidate’s background, his or her positions on the issues, and how the candidate is different from the opponent. Even negative messaging about an opponent is ethical so long as the negative information is necessary for the voters to make an informed decision. Accordingly, responsible political ads convey truthful information about the candidate and about his or her opponent. Ethical messaging also requires that the information being conveyed is fair and that it is relevant to the issues in the race.
I researched the brothel story to determine if the charge was true, fair, and relevant, and thus fair game in this political race. It turns out, the candidate had been caught up in a police sweep of a brothel in Las Vegas. So it WAS true. Case closed? Not so fast.
Researching further, it turned out that the candidate was not inside of the brothel—as claimed by his opponent. He never went inside. Rather he was outside waiting for his boss. He was never charged with any crime. So, while it was true he had been caught up in the sweep, the implication that he had violated the law was not fair.
Now knowing the facts, I asked myself, “Is it relevant to my voting decision whether 11 years before, the candidate exercised questionable judgment by waiting for his boss outside of a brothel?” The relevance question is truly a subjective one, that each of us will answer differently. However, the ability to answer that question requires a knowledge of all of the facts.
So, the next time you see a negative charge in a political race (and I promise you that in the coming weeks you will) take a beat and do a little research. Use fact checking sites like politifact.com and factcheck.org. Search the internet for contemporaneous news articles about claimed events. You may find that political accusations tell you more about the ethics of the accuser, than about the accused. And that is information you can use at the polls.