Ten Easy Steps to… Voting with a Clear Conscience

(Interdenominational version)

During recent election years, Priests for Life has provided important moral guidance to voters. In a non-partisan manner, we have assisted believers to apply moral principles to their voting decisions. All human choices, by definition, have moral dimensions – including the choices we make at the polls.

Fr. Frank Pavone has put together a booklet called “Voting with a Clear Conscience,” which summarizes the message he delivers around the country regarding the moral considerations of voting.

This booklet meets all legal requirements for distribution by Churches and other 501 (c)(3) organizations. Click here for a detailed legal memo from Bopp, Coleson and Bostrom (PDF format).

Having studied the document "Voting with a Clear Conscience" and the comprehensive legal opinion of Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, I concur in the reasoning and conclusions of both without hesitation or reservation.  I commend this excellent material to all thinking Catholics, clerical and lay alike. 

William P. Clark
California Supreme Court Justice (Ret.)

[Note: Judge Clark served under President Ronald Reagan as National Security Advisor, Secretary of the Interior, and Deputy Secretary of State.]

This booklet is a powerful tool for you to use and to give to your friends, your pastor, and your pro-life organizations!

If you want to vote in this year’s elections with a clear conscience, then this booklet was written for you. Many people want to fulfill their civic responsibilities without feeling they have to compromise their moral integrity. They want to take part in the political process, but not get morally stained in the process.

The good news is that you can fulfill your duty to vote and can also keep a clear conscience in the process! This booklet will tell you how.

The first step toward voting with a clear conscience is to make sure you actually vote. Federal elections in the United States are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November, in even-numbered years. That day should be clearly marked on your calendar. Jesus calls you to change the world, and you can’t do that if you just sit on the sidelines while somebody else chooses your leaders who will then write the laws you have to follow! The duty to vote comes from our duty to build a better society.

Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt. 22:21) Proper Christian submission to legitimate authority, as well as concern for the good of our fellow citizens, leads us to the obligation to vote.

This makes sense also in light of the Great Commission, by which Jesus sends us forth not simply to wait for the next world, but to improve this one: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20).

Our citizenship is a privilege, given the fact that so many around the world must live with leaders they did not choose. Moreover, our participation in the process of choosing our civic leaders is an opportunity to advance the Kingdom of God by advancing truth, justice, peace, and respect for the dignity of human life. Scripture places heavy responsibilities on kings and rulers; when a people govern themselves, those same responsibilities fall squarely on our shoulders.

To make sure you are on the road to fulfilling those responsibilities, you need to keep a few things in mind:

a) Make sure you are properly registered to vote. At www.priestsforlife.org/states/, we have a list of the states and the voter registration deadlines. If you have moved since the last election, you are probably in a different district. To be sure, contact your local Board of Elections. You certainly don’t want to arrive at the voting booth on Election Day only to find that you’re not registered!

b) Vote in the Primaries! Another step to voting with a clear conscience is to do everything in your power to get the right candidates on the ballot in the first place. While the General Election Day is the same nationwide, individual states have Primary Election Days on some earlier date. These are the elections in which we select the candidates who will be on the ballot in the general election. The Primary in your state may have already occurred for this year. Be sure you know when the Primaries are in your state (see www.priestsforlife.org/states/) and vote in them. On Election Day, many people are not happy with any of the choices. Part of the problem is that not enough of them voted in the Primaries, where they had the chance to get the name of a better candidate onto the ballot!

c) Absentee Ballots. Think ahead, and if you are going to be out of town on Election Day because of work, vacation, family responsibilities, school, military service, or some other reason, get an absentee ballot well in advance and fill it out! Likewise, if you are homebound or in a nursing facility and will not be able to get to the polls, don’t let that make you lose your vote! Obtain an absentee ballot right away!

d) Early Voting. Some states allow early voting. (To see if yours is one of them, visit www.gospeloflife.com/states.) This means that even if you are going to be in town on Election Day, you can vote within a specific period of time before Election Day. If your state has early voting, then vote early! This will minimize the risk of unforeseen obstacles arising on Election Day, like illness, car trouble, bad weather, unexpected family or work obligations, or just forgetfulness.

e) Bring your voting decisions to prayer. Pray for wisdom and guidance, clarity and strength as you consider the candidates in the light of the principles explained here. Pray for the inner freedom to do the right thing in the voting booth.

It’s a terrible feeling to be in the voting booth and to feel like you’re tossing a coin, hoping that the individual you’re voting for stands for the right values.

Of course, you can vote with a clear conscience if you know for sure ahead of time where that candidate stands. It is a moral obligation to do your homework to learn about the candidate, and the time is now, long before Election Day.

Candidates have websites you can visit, campaign headquarters you can call, and literature you can read. Also, candidates who already hold elected office in which they have voted on legislation have a voting record. That record is public information, some of which can be found at www.priestsforlife.org/legislation.

Suppose a candidate came forward and said, “I support terrorism.” Would you say, “I disagree with you on terrorism, but what’s your health care plan?”

Of course not.

Rather, you would immediately consider that candidate as disqualified from public office. His position, allowing the killing of the public, is radically inconsistent with public service.

So it is with abortion. Abortion is no less violent than terrorism. Any candidate who says abortion should be kept legal disqualifies him/herself from public service. We need look no further; we need pay no attention to what that candidate says on other issues. Support for abortion is enough for us to decide not to vote for such a person.

Our Lord asked, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:36). Many candidates promise many things, and rightly work to secure our rights to health care, education, housing and security. But if candidates and voters alike have lost sight of the fact that all these rights are based on the right to life itself, then their promise to secure those other rights is false and illusory. If government can take away rights from some humans, then those rights aren’t human rights at all. Such a politician, in other words, is saying that rights like health care only belong to some humans, not to others.

The first requirement to be a public servant is to be able to tell the difference between serving the public and killing the public. If a politician cannot respect the life of a little baby, how is he or she supposed to respect yours?

There are many issues, but some are more important than others. The right to life is like the foundation of a house. It holds up every other issue, because it is the principle at the heart and core of every effort for justice and peace.

Most disagreements between candidates and political platforms do not have to do with principle, but rather with policy. For example, it is a basic principle that people have a right to the safety of their own lives and possessions. That’s why we have to fight crime. We don’t see candidates campaigning on opposite sides of that principle, with some saying, “Fight Crime” and other defending “The Right to Crime.” Instead, there is agreement on the principle, but disagreement on the best policies to implement the principle. One voter concludes that one candidate has a better policy on crime than his opponent, while a second voter concludes the opposite. Both can vote in good conscience, because as long as the policy doesn’t break the principle, both policies may well be morally legitimate. It remains to be seen by trial and error which works best.

But when a policy dispute involves questioning whether people deserve that protection in the first place, the policy is the principle. To allow abortion, which is the killing of a human child in the womb, is to break the principle that every human life is sacred and to deny the principle that life deserves protection. In fact, to allow abortion establishes a different kind of government, namely, one that claims authority to tamper with human rights. The basic principle of our government is that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. -- That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” (The Declaration of Independence).

When a policy breaks the very founding principle of government, that is more than an ordinary political disagreement. That’s why a candidate’s position on abortion is about more than abortion. It is about the kind of authority government has. It is about who is ultimately in charge, God or government? It’s about the most fundamental political question there can be.

Candidates are supposed to advocate policies that advance the common good and the dignity of the human person. A candidate who advocates policies that violate those fundamental principles should not be elected to public office, because he or she violates the purpose of public office.

Following are examples of political disputes that are not mere policy disputes, but disputes about principle. (Note that this is not an exhaustive list.)

a) the killing of children through legal abortion;

b) the tiniest humans through destructive embryonic stem cell research;

c) the killing of infants already partially born (through partial-birth abortion);

d) the killing of the disabled, like Terri Schiavo, and the advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide;

e) the denial of religious freedom, such as the freedom of doctors and institutions to refrain from actions they hold to be immoral;

f) the denial of the natural institution of marriage as the union of one man and one woman;

g) the denial of the right to self-government. This denial occurs when candidates view judges and courts as the final arbiters of public policy, rather than the people themselves, acting through their duly elected legislators.

Candidates who advocate these errors are embracing positions that transcend normal political disagreements, and hence carry far more weight than positions on other policies.

There are many issues that have to be considered in elections, but as we have already seen, not all have equal weight. Once voters have disqualified those candidates who violate fundamental principles, they need to look at the wide spectrum of issues affecting the proper care of human life and promotion of human dignity.

These include issues of war and peace, capital punishment, racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. But how can we hope to build a society of justice if we ignore the most fundamental injustice? How can we welcome the poor if we cannot welcome our own children? How can we teach society not to throw criminals away when we allow it to throw innocent children away? How can we establish peace between nations when we cannot even establish peace between a mother and the child in her womb?

In her 1979 Nobel Lecture, delivered the day after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion … Many people are very, very concerned with the children of India, with the children of Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but many are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me? There is nothing in between.”

Her words highlight a basic fact, namely, that direct attacks on human life like abortion and euthanasia strike and the very foundation of human rights. On the other hand, support for war and capital punishment do not automatically or necessarily violate fundamental moral principles, because in some cases the very principle of protecting human rights and lives may require the state to take last resort measures when all other options have been exhausted.

Therefore, supporting abortion and euthanasia is worse than support for war or capital punishment.

When you vote, you say something about where your loyalties are. There is nothing wrong with being loyal to a candidate or to a political party. But there is something very wrong if your loyalty to either is stronger than your loyalty to Jesus Christ. Ask yourself, "Is there a position that my party can take that would prevent me from voting the party line?" Framed in another way, the question is, "Is my loyalty to the Christian faith stronger than my loyalty to any political party?"

Scripture urges us to be discerning in our choices. We reap what we sow. We cannot be superficial, making our voting decisions based only on rhetoric, party politics, or self-interest. We must exercise wisdom and discernment, because in the end we will get the public officials that we deserve.

Sometimes people vote according to the party of the candidate, perhaps because that’s a family tradition, or because some group or friend has asked them to do so. But when is the last time you read the words of the platform of that party? Don’t you think you should? Platforms change, and if the platform of that party today contradicts the platform of the Gospel and the moral law, you need to have the inner freedom to depart from personal, family, or community tradition and vote instead for the candidate and party that best reflect God’s law. We are free to belong to the political party of our choice, but first we belong to Jesus Christ. And belonging to Him means that there are certain things we can no longer assent to or go along with, including in politics and the voting booth.

Voting with a clear conscience also means that you consider how the outcome of the election in which you vote affects the balance of power. In other words, elections do not only put individual candidates into power; they put political parties into power. And it is not only the candidates who have positions. So do the parties.

The same questions, then, that you ask about the candidates’ positions on fundamental issues have to be asked of the party. What is the platform of that party? Is it possible that the balance of power might shift as a result of the outcome of this particular race? Keep in mind that the party that is in power controls the committees responsible for initiating legislation. A pro-abortion party will not normally allow pro-life legislation to come forward, no matter how pro-life the individual lawmakers may be. Do not just look at whether the candidate is pro-life. Consider whether or not, if he or she wins, a pro-abortion party will come into power.

Note: Some people have asked whether this particular chapter constitutes an endorsement for a particular party. It does not. It is, rather, a teaching on one of the moral implications of voting. When we teach about the morality or immorality of human actions, we have to consider the foreseen consequences of such actions. When a race could shift the balance of power between parties, that is obviously a significant, foreseen consequence of one’s action of voting. If we are to teach about the moral aspects of voting, we have to be able to talk about that particular consequence. The Church always has to be free to comment on the morality of particular actions, including in matters of politics, particularly when those matters involve human rights and salvation.

What happens if two opposing candidates both support abortion?

First of all, refrain from putting any labels or endorsements on anyone. Don't call them anything. Or, if you prefer, call them both pro-abortion. Then just ask a simple question: Which of the two candidates will do less harm to unborn children if elected?

For example, is either of the candidates willing at least to ban late-term abortion? Is either of them willing to put up some roadblocks to free and easy abortion? Will either support parental notification, or parental consent, or waiting periods? Has either of them expressed a desire to support pregnancy assistance centers? How about stricter regulation of abortion facilities? Has either candidate expressed support for that idea? Nobody is saying that's the final goal. But ask these questions just to see whether you can see any benefit of one of the candidates above the other.

One of the two of them will be elected; there is no question about that. So you are not free right now, in this race, to really choose the candidate you want. Forces beyond your control have already limited your choices. Whichever way the election goes, the one elected will not have the position we want elected officials to have on abortion.

In this case, it is morally acceptable to vote for the candidate who will do less harm. This is not "choosing the lesser of two evils." We may never choose evil. But in the case described above, you would not be choosing evil. Why? Because in choosing to limit an evil, you are choosing a good.

You oppose the evil of abortion, in every circumstance, no matter what. You know that no law can legitimize even a single abortion, ever. If the candidate thinks some abortion is OK, you don't agree.

But by your vote, you can keep the worse person out. And trying to do that is not only legitimate, but good. Some may think it's not the best strategy. But if your question is whether it is morally permissible to vote for the better of two bad candidates, the answer -- in the case described above -- is yes.

Some people, faced with unacceptable candidates, may be tempted not to vote at all. But that is still a choice, and we are still responsible for the consequences of not voting, just as we are responsible for the consequences of voting. If, therefore, to refrain from voting altogether might give the advantage to a worse candidate, we have to consider that we share responsibility for that outcome.

In this context, the question also arises as to whether one is required to vote for a third candidate who does not have a strong base of support but does have the right position. The answer is, no, you are not required to vote for this candidate. The reason is that your vote is not for the purpose of praising a candidate. It is a transfer of power. You have to look concretely at where the power is really going to be transferred, and use your vote not to make a statement but to help bring about the most acceptable results under the circumstances.

Of course, our conscience may be telling us, “Don’t say it’s impossible to elect the candidate who doesn’t have a strong base of support.” Of course, it is possible to elect almost anyone if the necessary work is done within the necessary time. God doesn’t ask us to base our choices on “the possibility of miracles,” but rather on solid human reason. The point is that if there’s a relatively unknown but excellent candidate, the time to begin building up support for that person’s candidacy is several years before the election, not several months. What you have to ask as Election Day draws near is whether your vote is needed to keep the worse candidate (of the two, less acceptable but more realistic choices) out of office.

Yet another factor to weigh in all of this is the margin of difference in support between the candidates. The closer it is, and the more crucial your state or county is in the overall outcome of the election, the more responsibility you have for considering the impact of your vote.

Another thing that will help you vote with a clear conscience on Election Day is to know that you did a lot of other things to help the candidate you are voting for. In other words, voting for the right candidate should be the culmination of a whole list of things you do to help get him or her into office. These things include donating to the campaign, volunteering for the campaign, handing out literature for the candidate, making phone calls and visits on the candidate’s behalf, sending emails, using yard signs and bumper stickers, and praying for the candidate.
Elections, after all, are not contests between two candidates. They are contests between two teams. And it is the team that has more active members doing all these things that, in the end, will bring in the most votes.

There is also a follow-up phase to elections, and that is to lobby those who are elected. When you vote for candidates, also resolve that you are going to keep the pressure on them after they are elected. You gave them power by showing up and voting. After they are in office, keep showing up to make sure they use that power the right way. If they don’t, then pressure them; if they do, then back them up.

Each of us has one vote, but each of us can mobilize hundreds, even thousands of votes. That’s the secret to helping the right people win elections: you simply need to get more people to vote for them. Remember that many people are not paying nearly as much attention to the elections as you are, and even less attention to the candidates and their positions. Many who trust you will accept your guidance about the importance of voting for a particular candidate. Don’t be afraid to use that influence!

As Election Day draws near, focus on the “low-hanging fruit.” Remember, the numbers are what counts. You have a limited amount of time to try to garner as many votes as possible. It’s much like going into an orange grove, with the goal of gathering as many oranges as you can in a limited amount of time. It doesn’t make sense to expend time and energy climbing to the top of the trees to get the oranges there when you can get many more that are within arm’s reach with much less time and energy. Reach for the low-hanging fruit!

So it is with elections. Rather than spend hours trying to convince one person to vote the right way, spend that time and energy reminding dozens of people – who are already in agreement with you on the issues – to get out and cast their vote. Don’t go looking for the personal victory of catching the “hard to get” voter. Go catch the easier ones and bring the candidate to victory!
If you can take the day off on Election Day, do so. Spend the day contacting people by phone and email, reminding them to vote. Maybe a friend needs a ride to the polls or someone to watch the children while they go to vote. If you call a friend in the morning to remind him to vote, call him again later to verify that he did so!

Having done all this, rejoice in a clear conscience, and trust the Lord to bring about the victory for a Culture of Life!

Elections Information

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: mail@priestsforlife.org