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’Present’ votes defended by Illinois lawmakers

by Daniel C. Vock, 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.

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