Unexamined Ballot, Not Worth Casting

During the 2012 political campaigns for a variety of local and state-wide offices, chances are that you will have a candidate ring your doorbell or you will encounter one at a public gathering.

He will tell you all about himself, hand you a piece of literature, and then ask if you have any questions. This is your chance to find out what the candidate really thinks.

You have to be very careful, however, because the way you ask your questions can reveal your views to the candidate, and he will likely offer an answer specifically crafted to give the appearance that it is consistent with your views. In order to avoid this, and to have a little fun in the process, here are some suggestions.

1) Ask your question in a way that sounds like you don’t agree with the position you actually hold. For example, if you are prochoice on abortion, ask the candidate if he or she believes that the state should protect the innocent unborn from unjust harm (and just a personal question, by the way: why are you reading The Catholic Thing?). If you are prolife, tell the candidate that you are concerned about the right to privacy, reproductive rights, and a woman’s right to choose. Then ask where he stands on this “deeply personal issue.”

If you believe that the Second Amendment affirms a near absolute right to bear arms, ask the candidate if she believes that the government should restrict handgun ownership so that “no more innocent children are needlessly maimed by these machines of violence.” On the other hand, if you are a firm advocate of gun control, ask the candidate if given the opportunity will she take away your “Second Amendment God-given right to self-protection.”

2) Play the devil’s advocate. The purpose of this sort of questioning is to see whether the candidate really knows why he holds the position he does or was simply spoon fed certain “positions” because his campaign manager thought they were great points for the blog or the door piece.

Consider this scenario. The candidate’s literature states that she “supports harsher sentences for criminals who harm senior citizens.” If you are not a senior citizen, you may ask, “Are you saying that my life and property are of lesser value than those of older people?” If you are a senior citizen, you may ask, “Are you saying that the life and property of my children and grandchildren are of lesser value than mine?”

Of course, you may agree, as I do, with the policy. But playing the devil’s advocate forces the candidate to reason with you about this policy as well as reveal to you, by the width and depth of the case she makes, whether she really believes what her campaign literature states.

As Socrates might say: Don’t be an unexamining voter.

3) Have fun with the candidate’s slogans. Several years ago a Nevada state senate candidate had a slogan that was ubiquitous in his literature: “It’s time for a change.” The incumbent, a friend of mine, asked me to help her prep for her debate with him. During the prep I asked her if she had ever voted for a tax increase during her tenure in the legislature. She said that she had not. Then, I told her that in her opening statement of her debate she should say this: “During my time as a state senator I have never voted for a tax increase. My opponent says that it is time for a change. Evidently, he will never vote against a tax increase.” You should have seen the look on his face.

Candidates should be held accountable for their sound bites and slogans, especially when they assume a constituency easily manipulated by empty rhetoric.

4) Ask questions of principle rather than questions of belief. The purpose of this form of inquiry is to get the candidate to divulge the political principles that undergird the policies he supports.

Consider the case of the 1996 Republican candidate for President, Bob Dole. While serving in the U. S. Senate, Dole had a very strong pro-affirmative action voting record. Presidential candidate Dole, however, announced his opposition to affirmative action because, in his words, “it doesn’t work.” But most people, including many in both major political parties, oppose most forms of affirmative action because they believe that these policies are tantamount to preferential treatment, resulting in some cases of less qualified applicants being chosen over better qualified ones. They do not oppose affirmative action because “it doesn’t work,” but because “it is unfair.”

So whether or not affirmative action “works” has no bearing on the principled opposition to it. Dole, therefore, should have been asked by the media how he would respond to critics of affirmative action who think it is unfair regardless of whether it worked. And the inquiry could have taken an even more penetrating turn. Dole could have been asked how he would convince those critics of affirmative action why they are wrong in their moral assessment.

It is important that voters not only become better informed, but that they think clearly and critically about the candidates and their policies. Or to put it as Socrates might have, “The unexamined ballot is not worth casting.”

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).