The church is encouraged to participate in politics. Kindly refer to my earlier articles on this platform – The Church and Her Franchise and Should Christians Participate in Politics? Elections will always present voters with an opportunity to make choices; whether it is a local government race that will affect your immediate community or a national race that could change the direction of the country. How should voters evaluate the candidates campaigning for the various offices in the land?
The four steps outlined below are designed to help you to evaluate candidates.
- Before you commence your appraisal, first decide what you are looking for in a candidate for a specific office.
- Investigate candidates by gathering material about their past records, experiences and their stands on issues that you are concerned about. Note endorsements and funding of candidates as it will often determine the political compass of the candidate.
- Analyse public/voters’ perception of candidates.
- Prayerfully decide which candidate will receive your vote.
Step 1: Decide what you are looking for in a candidate.
Most folks who have a satisfying marriage will often tell you that they knew wanted and instantly recognised their spouse as theirs when the opportunity came their way. Many voters go into the polling booth without knowing what they want from the candidate they are voting into office. Others know what they want but their choices are premised on emotional factors that are inconsequential to their future welfare. Voting a candidate based on tribal and religious affinities are some of the regular sentimental reasons that prejudice the minds of the average voter on this continent.
Candidates can be judged in two ways; the positions they take on issues and the leadership qualities and experience they would bring to the office. Both are important. Your first step in picking a candidate is to decide the issues you care about and the qualities you want in a leader. When you consider issues, think about your community or national problems that you want people in government to address. For example, you may be interested in the issue of unemployment, the threat of insurgency and civil unrest, and fighting of corruption in public office. When you consider leadership qualities, think about the characteristics you want in an effective leader. Are you looking for intelligence, honesty, or an ability to communicate?
Step 2: Investigate candidates.
In business practice, we undertake due diligence before going entering into any contract with the counterparty. A man who wants to buy land will go behind the seller to investigate whether he has a good title. In traditional African societies, families will investigate each other before allowing their children to get married. Proverbs 13:4 puts it this way, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” How do you investigate a candidate? It is by gathering material about the candidate. Assemble a library of information about the candidates. Sources of information from which you may choose include:
- campaign literature, including campaign websites.
- nonpartisan NGO focused on voter education and the democratic process.
- press reports (newspapers, television, and radio).
- radio and television advertisements.
- candidates’ speeches.
- candidate debates.
In a local race, interviews with the candidates can be helpful. For incumbents, a look at their records on issues that you have listed as important can tell you the candidates’ positions on those issues. Nevertheless, deciding whether a candidate will be a good leader is difficult. How can you know if someone will be honest, accessible or able to manage pressure if elected to office? Here are some ways to read between the lines as you evaluate the candidates’ leadership qualities.
- Look at the candidates’ background and their experience. Consider yourself to be a panellist on a job interview. How well prepared are they for the job?
- Monitor the candidates’ campaigns. Do they accept speaking engagements before different groups; even those groups that might not be sympathetic to their candidacy? Do they accept invitations to debate? Do the campaigns emphasize media events where the candidates can be seen but not heard?
- Review the campaign materials. As you read the materials and watch the campaign develop, add to the Candidate Report Card the information that provides insights into candidates’ personalities and leadership qualities. For example, do campaign materials emphasize issues or just beautiful images of the candidate? Is information contained therein accurate?
In politics, endorsement of a candidate by a notable personality, interest groups, institutions or industry will give you a fair idea of how the candidate would act in office and whose interest he/she would be likely to protect and promote. Endorsements provide clues to the issues a candidate supports. What specific conclusions can you draw about the candidates’ stand on issues? Get a list of endorsements from each candidates’ headquarters. Furthermore, find out what these interest groups represent and why they are endorsing the candidate. Look into campaign contributions. Where do the candidates get the funds to finance their campaigns? Do they use their own money or raise funds from a few wealthy donors, from many small contributors, or from their political parties? Information about campaign contributions is reported to the electoral commission (INEC in Nigeria) and are watched by the press. Check the newspaper for stories on campaign finance. How might these campaign contributions affect the candidates’ conduct in office?
Step 3: Analyse public/voters perception of the candidates.
Now that you have accumulated information from campaigns and other sources, you will want to learn about what other people think about the candidates. Their opinions can help to clarify your views, but do not discount your informed judgments. More and more, people tune in to televisions for their main source of information. Television is a visual platform which is dependent on good pictures and timely events to stir your emotions and sustain your interest. Candidates are aware of the potential power of television and try to use it to their advantage. For instance, in a newscast, the picture you see of a crowd with banners and logos of the political party, cheering a candidate may have been staged by a media advisor whose job is to make the candidate look good on television. As you watch news coverage of campaigns, be aware of staged events and try to find out what the candidate is saying about the issues. When you watch political advertisements, you need to be aware of how the media influence your reactions. Ask yourself some questions as you watch. Did you find out anything about issues or qualifications? Or was the advertisement designed only to affect your attitude or feelings about a candidate? How important were the script, setting and music?
Seeing through distortion techniques.
All candidates are trying to sell themselves to voters. Sometimes their language is so skillfully crafted that they distort the truth in a way that is difficult for even the most careful observer to detect. Here are some examples of distortion techniques that you should watch for as you review candidates’ campaign materials.
Common distortion techniques:
Name calling/Appeals to prejudice:
These are attacks on an opponent based on characteristics that will not affect performance in office. References to ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or marital status can be subtly used to instil prejudice.
These include statements such as, “Everyone says my opponent is a crook, although I have no personal knowledge of any wrongdoing,” which imply (but do not state) that the opponent is guilty.
Guilt by association:
These are statements such as, “We all know Candidate B is backed by looters,” that attack candidates because of their support rather than because of their stands on the issues.
These are phrases such as “corruption” or “religious bigot” that are designed to trigger a knee-jerk emotional reaction rather than to inform.
Passing the blame:
These are instances in which a candidate denies responsibility for an action or blames an opponent for things over which he or she had no control.
Promising the sky:
These are unrealistic promises that no one elected official could fulfil.
Evading real issues:
These include instances in which candidates may avoid answering direct questions, offer only vague solutions or talk about the benefits of proposed programs but never get specific about possible problems or costs.
In summary, seek the opinions of others in your community who keep track of political campaigns. Interview three people (not family members) such as a shopkeeper, neighbour, or politically active volunteer, to find out which candidate they support and why they support the candidate. Hear what has shaped their political opinions. Was it an event? An idea or programme proposed by a candidate? An issue about which they feel strongly? A long-standing party loyalty? Throughout the campaign, opinion polls will be taken by a variety of groups to evaluate public support for the different candidates. Polls reveal who is leading at a certain point in the race. As you read the polls, ask these questions: Who sponsored the poll? Were all the figures released? What kinds of questions were asked? Were they slanted or unbiased? Who were respondents selected – randomly or such a way to include all segments of the population? How many people were included in the poll sample?
Step 4: Prayerfully decide on who to vote for and don’t change your mind at the polling booth
Prepare a Candidate Report Card. List your priority issues. List your positions and rank the candidates on how they stand on the issues and your positions. List the leadership qualities you want and rank the candidates on those qualities. Review the information in your Candidate Report Card and compare all the candidates. Ask yourself these final questions:
- Which candidate’s view on the issues do you agree with the most?
- Who ran the fairest campaign?
- Which candidate demonstrated the most knowledge on the issues?
- Which candidate has the leadership qualities you are looking for?
Is the choice clear? If so, pray before you pick a candidate. Praying for the electoral process is the first step in seeing the fulfilment of what Paul wrote about to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 4. I don’t believe we should wait for a leader to be selected before we move into obedient prayer for those in authority. In prayer, we invite the Lord into the process of electing those leaders who will ultimately allow us to lead “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (v. 2).
- Adapted from the American League of Women Voters Education Fund