In an election where all political candidates hold problematic positions, Catholic voters may choose “the lesser of two evils,” cast a protest vote, or simply not vote, one U.S. bishop has advised, with pro-life groups calling for prudence in making this decision.

“It’s a real problem that many faithful Catholics face these days – how to vote when all of the candidates are pro-abortion,” Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., acknowledged in an Oct. 16 column for The Rhode Island Catholic, his diocese's official publication.

“I know, it’s a tough time to be a moral, pro-life voter. The field is narrow and the options are few. But, vote according to your conscience, pray for our state and nation, and sleep well. Remember, God’s still in charge!”

Bishop Tobin presented the three voting options as an answer to a member of the diocese who revealed that the candidate for whom she had intended to vote supported both abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

“I responded to my letter-writer that it wasn’t appropriate for me to suggest candidates for whom she should or shouldn’t vote, but that it was important for her to become well-informed about the candidates and their positions, pray about it, and then vote according to her conscience,” the bishop wrote, adding the importance of the virtue of prudence.

In such a scenario, “when no candidate presents an acceptable position, especially about critical moral issues like abortion,” one of three options would be, Bishop Tobin said, “to choose the candidate who, in traditional terms, is the lesser of two evils.”

Alternatively, a voter could cast a “protest” vote by choosing to “write-in the name of someone who represents pro-life values … Even though this person surely wouldn’t be elected to office, a vote in that direction would send a clear signal that at least some voters won’t settle for anything less than a pro-life candidate. Contrary to what critics will charge, it’s not a wasted vote; it’s a sincere expression of conscience that upholds moral truth. And that’s never a waste!”

Another legitimate option, Bishop Tobin said, is that a citizen “might well decide to skip this year’s election and not vote at all, or at least not vote for a particular office.”

“Although Catholics have a general moral obligation to participate in the life of our nation, there are many ways to do that, and there’s certainly no obligation to vote in each and every election, particularly when the options are repugnant to the well-informed conscientious Christian voter.”

In Rhode Island's gubernatorial race, both the Democratic candidate, Gina Raimondo, and the Republican candidate, Allan Fung, support legal abortion. However, pro-life groups pointed out that the candidates differ on a number of policy points.

For instance, Fung opposes both taxpayer funding of abortions and late-term abortions, and supported the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby religious freedom decision. Raimondo was endorsed by Planned Parenthood, and opposed the Hobby Lobby decision.

Joshua Mercer of CatholicVote.org suggested that citizens follow Bishop Tobin's first or second scenario – participate in the election, either to send a “protest vote” or to elect the candidate who one thinks will do the least amount of harm.

Mercer advised against the idea that one might choose not to vote for a particular office, saying to CNA that “staying at home doesn't do any good at all,” and, “I still think every Catholic has an obligation to vote, because you’ve got to communicate some way that this is what it should be like.”

He did add that “a protest vote is definitely an option. And it’s one that Catholics in good conscience should consider (in some) circumstances, precisely because you have a very flawed candidate and then a very horrible candidate.”

“When pro-lifers are in a distinct minority, you have to make very difficult choices.”

“It would be wonderful to have both political parties fighting over each other to see which one is more pro-life,” Mercer commented.

“Unfortunately, we’re not faced with that situation. There is going to be a governor sworn into office in January of next year for Rhode Island. The question is, will that governor support taxpayer funding of abortion or not?”

Rhode Island Right to Life, meanwhile, urged citizens to follow Bishop Tobin's first voting option: to vote for the candidate who will do the least amount of harm.

The group has drawn attention for their endorsement of Fung for governor, despite the pro-abortion elements of his record.

In September, Bishop Tobin responded to the group's decision by telling GoLocalProv, “I know that RI Right to Life approaches these issues very carefully, and I can only presume that they have more information about Mayor Fung's position than I do. I won't second guess their endorsement.”

He added, however: “Personally, though, I can't vote for any candidate for any office, who claims to be pro-choice, which to me translates to being pro-abortion.”

Rhode Island Right to Life spokesman Barth Bracy explained that Fung still matches up with the group on a number of legislative issues such as supporting both “incremental pro-life legislation” and a health care plan option in the state’s insurance exchange that doesn’t cover abortion.

Currently the state’s insurance exchange offers only health plans covering abortion. The current plans include an abortion surcharge which forces all participants in the exchange to pay separately for abortion coverage, raising conscience concerns, Bracy maintained. Fung has promised to support an alternative plan on the exchange “that does not provide abortion coverage, except in the circumstances of rape, incest, or to protect the life of a woman.”
 
“So essentially every single issue that we’ve got pending before the General Assembly that we’re trying to pass, he supports. And every single issue before the General Assembly that Planned Parenthood is trying to pass, he opposes,” Bracy told CNA.

“We would love to have perfect candidates in every race, but when that doesn’t happen, you have to choose between who is running. And when you have on the one hand one candidate that will support every single one of the initiatives that you can reasonably foresee raising over the next four years, and on the other hand you have a candidate who is the most extreme abortion advocate we have ever seen, it’s a pretty clear decision.”

“If Gina Raimondo, the Planned Parenthood candidate, wins, we’re going to lose a lot of legislative battles over the next four years, plain and simple. If Allen Fung wins, we’re going to win a lot of legislative battles over the next four years. So lives are at stake, conscience is at stake.”