Candidate Beware: Recognizing Ethical Obligations of Elected Office

Attorneys sworn in to the State Bar of Michigan. Detroit, MI.

“The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” -Frederick Douglass

Since the 2016 election, there has been a significant uptick of interest in running for office. Nationally, people are fed up with politics as is and are determined to run themselves to create the changes they want to see in their communities, which is a necessary component of a healthy democracy. From the highs of inspiration and planning your campaign strategy, to the lows of performing less than thrilling tasks (phone-banking, anyone?), and everything in between, your campaign is sure to be the experience of a lifetime. However, win or lose, in deciding to run, you must not only consider the necessities of the campaign, but the obligations of elected office, especially the ethical obligations, which have seemingly been forgotten in the political landscape.

No doubt before you decided to run for office, you thought long and hard about what office you wanted to run for and why, as well as skills you bring to the table and what makes you unique among the pool of candidates. If you haven’t considered these preliminary questions, you should rethink your plan, or risk losing not only the race, but precious time, money, and resources expended in your efforts. Envisioning the office you want to occupy will give you greater clarity and understanding of what your role will be as an elected official, what authority is vested in your position, and the ethical obligations of that particular office.

Chief amongst the ethical obligations of virtually every elected office is a duty to maintain public trust in government. Every level of government is dependent upon its electors- everyday citizens like you and me- to not only vote for leaders, but fund those offices through tax payer dollars, in addition to funding public welfare and safety programs such as roads, police, schools, and other infrastructure. As such, elected offices require officials to take an oath to uphold the laws and duties of the office to ensure responsibility and trust over our dollars and our well being.

Without public trust, government is dysfunctional at best and doomed at worst. As stated by a publication from the Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, “The public is willing to delegate authority and sacrifice some freedoms in exchange for an orderly and civilized society, but only if it believes that government is acting in the public’s best interest. When the public loses trust in government, public cooperation suffers, compliance with laws fail, and investors and consumers lose confidence.”

And right now, there is no question that public trust in government is lacking. According to a Pew Research study, public trust is at historically low levels, with only 19% of Americans saying they trust the federal government to do what is right. Closer to home, here in Detroit we are reminded of the 2016 election fiasco at the City Clerk’s Office, where numerous reports emerged regarding faulty machines resulting in erroneous tabulations of votes and over half of Detroit votes ineligible for a recount. Naturally, as the chief elections official, the City Clerk came under fire, with one news outlet even calling for her resignation. However, a recent poll suggests that the City Clerk may be able to atone for these errors, as she leads three known challengers by a wide margin, gaining 34% of the vote in the poll, compared to a range of 3-9 % for her challengers, respectively.

Yet given the grim data regarding public trust in government, candidates and potential candidates alike must consider what is at stake for their own work and reputation. Have you considered the effects of publicity? Are you willing to put your name and reputation out for the public to know and pick apart when they feel you have betrayed their interests? Worst of all, any mistakes in office, especially a breach in public trust, can have negative long term consequences in your career, impacting your chances for successful reelection as well as your endeavors outside of politics. Envision yourself in the office you desire, not only as a winner and  a hero, but also the outcomes should you find yourself as the villain.

In closing, consider this quote by essayist John Gardner: “The citizen can bring our political and governmental institutions back to life, make them responsive and accountable, and keep them honest. No one else can.” Think big picture. Think long term, and strive for best case scenario. In spite of the gloomy outlook, hope springs eternal. Armed with sufficient knowledge and a good team of supporters, you can achieve ethical success as an elected official by upholding your obligations through accountability, thereby building the restoration of public trust.

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