What you’re saying if you choose not to vote

Susan Liautaud is the founder and managing director of Susan Liautaud & Associates Limited, which advises clients from global corporations to NGOs on ethics. Author of the forthcoming book “The Power of Ethics: How to Make Good Choices in a Complicated World,” she teaches at Stanford University, serves as chair of the Council of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and is the founder of the nonprofit platform The Ethics Incubator. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)I just received an email notification that my mail-in ballot was received and will count in November’s presidential election. This verification recorded one of the most ethically important decisions I make.

Voting is not just a right, it’s an ethical responsibility. And a candidate’s ethics, or the ethics of a particular issue, should be central to our choice.
But in these challenging times, voting — and considering a candidate’s ethics in our decision — can seem daunting. From the practicalities of mail-in ballots or showing up in person, to data privacy, Covid-19 and the very real racism embedded in our voting infrastructure, it may seem tempting to sit this one out rather than to consider our ethical responsibility.
Our elected officials have outsized opportunity and responsibility to model decisions and behaviors for good. The election of a leader is a game-changing opportunity to cauterize the spread of unethical behavior and its nefarious consequences and reset on a positive course. Or not.
When we abstain from voting we give up our power to determine who becomes a leader and influences the world — ethically and beyond. We don’t get to decide that neither candidate will be president.
Choosing not to vote diminishes your influence on matters like national security, domestic policy, privacy rights, Supreme Court appointments and immigration. You also forfeit your voice on cutting-edge issues such as internet safety, human germline editing, autonomous weapons, and artificial intelligence that will shape society with more widespread and unpredictable consequences than ever before.
And because you have the power to choose, you still have the responsibility for the choice. Opting not to vote does not absolve us of ethical responsibility for the risks and opportunities that ensue when a new leader takes office.
I never tell anyone how to resolve their ethical dilemmas, and I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone how they should vote. But I would offer a four-word framework for decision-making to help clarify the ethics of your decision whether or not to vote and your expectations for ethical political leadership.
We should look to: principles, information, stakeholders and consequences.
First, consider your own priority set of principles — the guides for your decisions that signal to the world who you are, how you act, and how you expect others to behave. Do they align with the candidates’ stated principles? Or are your principles (perhaps honesty, equality, integrity…) in conflict with the candidate’s behavior and policy?
Second, assess the available information. If you’re considering not voting because, understandably, you don’t know how to begin to parse all the information or don’t have time, probe whether the candidates’ actions (behaviors, policies, voting record, and positions on specific issues) align with their claimed principles — and whether any unacceptable acts make it impossible for you to vote for them (fraud, racism).
Also, ask whether the candidate exhibits drivers of contagion of unethical behavior. Examples in the political realm include: greed, pressure, failure to listen, abuse of power, demands for loyalty rather than diversity of views, arrogance, and manipulation of social media.
Most importantly, ask whether the candidate values truth. Any evidence of a disregard for truth should be a deal breaker — not a reason not to vote but a reason to vote for the other candidate. Compromised truth is, in my view, the greatest global systemic risk of our time because it infiltrates and catalyzes so many other risks from climate change to foreign manipulation of elections.
Falsity spreads and undermines trust. The candidate’s close advisers, supporters and staff are also likely to find themselves tangled in a web of contagion — starting with an inability to speak out to correct untruths.
If you strongly agree with the candidate’s policies (or you’re a single-issue voter) but find their behavior abhorrent, ask yourself: Would I tolerate this same behavior from a friend? Would I stand by and allow someone to treat my spouse, partner, or child the way this candidate treats people? How would I feel if the CEO of the company I work for, or my direct boss, displayed these behaviors?
If you’re still considering not voting, stick with the framework for two more steps: stakeholders and consequences.
We are never the only stakeholders in the ethics of our decisions, whether taking the car keys away from a friend who drinks (or not), wearing a mask (or not), or voting (or not).
In democracies today, we have a responsibility to look at the stakeholders and consequences beyond our own countries — people whom we will never know, foreign and domestic policy of other nations, the climate, extremism, pandemics and beyond. Voting is a signal to people around the world that if they cannot vote, or express themselves freely where they live, those of us who can will keep them front of mind.
Voting — or not — is a statement of who we are as a nation. If we all vote, and integrate the candidates’ ethics into our choice, just imagine the collective raising of ethical standards we would elect.

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Opinion by Susan Liautaud