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'Present' votes defended by Ill. lawmakers

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.stateline.org/live/details/story?contentId=274863 Friday, January 25, 2008 Present votes defended by Ill. lawmakers By Daniel C. Vock,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 25, 2008
      http://www.stateline.org/live/details/story?contentId=274863

      Friday, January 25, 2008
      'Present' votes defended by Ill. lawmakers
      By Daniel C. Vock, Stateline.org Staff Writer

      In most legislatures, lawmakers vote either “yes” or
      “no” on bills, but in Illinois, senators and
      representatives can hit a third button for a “present”
      vote. Now that quirk — not unique to Illinois — has
      sparked heated exchanges among Democrats vying for
      president.

      The two main rivals of Illinois’ U.S. Sen. Barack
      Obama for the Democratic nomination accused him during
      a debate Monday (Jan. 21) of ducking important votes
      by voting “present” about 130 times during his eight
      years in the Illinois Senate.

      But Obama’s former colleagues who still serve in the
      Illinois Capitol say that the attacks are off-base and
      that either Obama’s opponents don’t understand how
      things work in Springfield or they are deliberately
      distorting his record.

      “To insinuate the ‘present’ vote means you’re
      indecisive, that you don’t have the courage to hold
      public office, that’s a stretch. But, it’s good
      politics,” said state Rep. Bill Black (R), a 22-year
      veteran of the House and his party’s floor leader.

      In fact, he said, Illinois legislators get attacked
      for their “present” votes nearly every campaign
      season. “It’s always been a campaign gimmick, really.
      If you vote ‘present’ once in 23 years, somebody will
      bring it up.”

      The “present” vote in Illinois is sometimes cast by
      state lawmakers with a conflict of interest who would
      rather not weigh in on an issue. Other times, members
      use the option to object to certain parts of a bill,
      even though they may agree with its overall purpose.

      “The ‘present’ vote is used, especially by more
      thoughtful legislators, not as a means of avoiding
      taking a position on an issue, but as a means of
      signaling concerns about an issue,” said state Rep.
      John Fritchey (D), an Obama supporter.

      The Land of Lincoln isn’t the only state where
      lawmakers can register their displeasure without
      actually voting against a bill. Colorado, Delaware,
      Massachusetts, Missouri and Texas also allow “present”
      votes or similar options in at least one chamber,
      according to a recent review of chamber rules by the
      National Conference of State Legislatures.

      In Hawaii, where Obama grew up, legislators can cast a
      “kanalua” (a Hawaiian word meaning “doubt”) vote
      during roll calls, essentially a pass. But after going
      through the roll call two or three times, depending on
      the chamber, the “kanalua” vote eventually counts as a
      “yes.”

      In Illinois, the “present” vote works as a vote
      against a measure during final action.

      State Sen. John Cullerton (D) calls the “present” vote
      “a no vote with an explanation.” Legally, there’s not
      much difference between the two votes, but
      practically, it can let the sponsors or other
      legislators know of problems with the bill that should
      be corrected.

      That’s not how U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)
      characterized it in a debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.,
      this week.

      “In the Illinois state Senate, Senator Obama voted 130
      times ‘present.’ That’s not ‘yes,’ that’s not ‘no.’
      That’s ‘maybe,’” she said.

      Later, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) noted
      that members of Congress had to either vote “yes” or
      “no” or not show up.

      “What if I had just not shown up to vote on things
      that really mattered to this country?” he asked. “It
      would have been safe for me politically. It would have
      been the careful and cautious thing to do, but I have
      a responsibility to take a position even when it has
      political consequences for me.”

      Those remarks angered Cullerton, who is also backing
      Obama. He stressed that voting “present” is different
      than not voting at all.

      “There’s not one Republican, there’s not one member in
      the history of the General Assembly who is still alive
      today who would criticize voting ‘present.’ There’s
      not one member of the General Assembly who’s alive
      today who has ever not voted ‘present,’” he said.

      Fritchey, the House Democrat who chairs a committee on
      civil law, said he often used the “present” vote when
      he thought a bill had constitutional or other legal
      problems.

      That’s also the reason Obama, who taught
      constitutional law at the University of Chicago, gave
      during the debate for voting “present” on a bill he
      originally had sponsored.

      “After I had sponsored it and helped to get it passed,
      it turned out that there was a legal provision in it
      that was problematic and needed to be fixed so that it
      wouldn’t be struck down,” he said.

      Sometimes using “present” votes is part of a larger
      strategy.

      For example, in what was supposed to be the last night
      of the legislative session in 2002, the leader of the
      Senate Democrats said he had been double-crossed on a
      budget agreement when a major new revenue source was
      left out. His caucus didn’t have enough votes to stop
      the whole revenue package, which included cigarette
      tax hikes, and the Democrats agreed to most of the
      bill anyway.

      “I’m going to recommend to the members of this side of
      the aisle to vote ‘present’ until such a time as we
      see a total package that’s going to balance the budget
      for the year 2003,” state Sen. Emil Jones Jr. (D) told
      his caucus.

      All told, 22 Democrats voted “present,” and the
      Republicans passed the measure. Obama was one of
      “present” votes, even though he earlier touted the
      cigarette tax hike at a press conference.
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