How to Be an Ethical Voter

Director of Government Ethics Program at SCU’s Markkula Center penned a guide on voting for ethical candidates.

Ethical voting sounds like a contradiction in terms. Ethics and morality seemingly play no role in an Election Year as deeply divided along a chasm of partisan bickering and rhetoric (not to mention a pandemic that continues unfurling endlessly toward the horizon) as 2020 is. It’s no wonder voter participation has long been on the downslide in the U.S. And yet, despite the collective exhaustion we are feeling as we march, masked and weary, to the ballot box before and on November 3, march we do. For voting is one tangible thing we can do to try to make life better, not just for us but others as well. What’s more ethical than that?

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Hana Callaghan harnessed that optimism—that we can do better—in her new book, Voting for Ethics, now available for free download from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The non-partisan, how-to guide helps voters in identifying the hallmarks of an ethical candidate for public office—from president of the United States to city council—in order to cast a more informed vote.

Callaghan completed the book just before she died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism in January 2020. Prior to her passing, she was appointed director of the Government Ethics Program at the Markkula Center in 2014 following a long career in law, public service, and government, serving as campaign manager for former Congressman Tom Campbell of California in his 2010 bid for U.S. Senate.

In the preface for Callaghan’s book, Senior Director Ann Skeet of Leadership Ethics writes of her colleague and friend, “[Hana] chose to make campaign ethics the centerpiece of her work. In spite of all the data provided to the voting public to the contrary, Hana believed we could return to a time when the character of a candidate was a critical factor in electability when campaigns were run with honor and focused on the future a candidate was trying to shape, rather than by trading barbs on the campaign trail and getting mired in the past.”

Whereas Callaghan’s previous book, Campaign Ethics: A Field Guide, piloted the candidates themselves on running honorable political campaigns, Voting for Ethics focuses on the voter. At the start of each of the seven chapters, she asks voters a question about any given candidate: Does the candidate take the high road? Are the candidate’s political communications ethical? Does the candidate raise money the right way? She then lays out examples of political red flags and oft-used dirty tricks, provides real-life instances of unethical conduct from campaigns past, and ends with interactive case studies and prompts.

The constant name-calling and mudslinging of the 2016 presidential election left many with a bad taste in their mouths, Callaghan writes, contributing to an abysmal voter turnout (only 57-percent of those who were eligible to vote did so that year, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center) and a disenchantment with the process. But demanding ethical campaigns—and voting for the more ethical candidates—could help re-engage citizens in their civic duty, she insists. “We need to send a message to candidates that the ethical campaigner is the one who will get our vote,” she writes.

Reducing rancor will decrease political polarity and ensuring fairness and integrity in campaigns will restore public trust in government, Callaghan concludes. “It will help increase civic engagement by creating a process that not only encourages an informed and involved electorate but also encourages good people to run for office.”

So how do we encourage candidates to campaign ethically? Callaghan says it’s as simple as letting our votes speak for us. And with early voting numbers already posting huge gains—a CNN report shows 33 states surpassing pre-election vote totals from 2016—it seems voters are eager to be heard.

Reference Callaghan’s guide here when filling out your ballot, and be sure to either vote in-person on November 3 or drop-off your ballot at an early polling place or dropbox as the U.S. Postal Service can no longer guarantee ballots will be delivered in time. To find your polling place, visit

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