By: - January 25, 2008 12:00 am

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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