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SUMMARY: In the Illinois state senate, lawmakers sometimes vote "present" instead of "no" to block bills without officially opposing them and Barack Obama was no stranger to the practice. He calls it party tactics, his opponent calls it ducking tough issues.
Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. That sentiment appears to have taken hold in the Illinois general assembly, where lawmakers frequently register their opposition to bills by voting "present" rather than "no."
The ritual has the practical effect of sometimes stopping legislation while preventing critics from using recorded votes to typecast legislators as consistently voting the same way on abortion, gun control or any number of other contentious social issues. That can be particularly handy for lawmakers representing swing districts.
But the practice has gained national attention after Sen. Hillary Clinton questioned whether Sen. Barack Obama used present votes 129 times over eight years as an Illinois state senator to duck tough votes.
"On issue after issue that really were hard to explain or understand, you voted present . . . And anytime anyone raises that, there's always some kind of explanation," Clinton said in her most pronounced attack, during a Jan. 21, 2008, Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
To evaluate Clinton's claim, PolitiFact reviewed vote tallies and bill descriptions from three of Obama's four terms in the Illinois Senate – the 91st (1999-2000), 92nd (2001-2002) and 93rd (2003-2004) legislative sessions. The information was obtained from the Illinois General Assembly Web site. First, journals for each day were examined for votes and bill numbers where Obama voted "present." Then, bill summaries and vote tally pages were reviewed.
Records from Obama's first session, the 90th (1998-1999), cannot be electronically retrieved and were not included in this analysis. They are available to the public in hard copy at the state house in Springfield.
Without the full set of records, we could not verify the 129 figure, though we did count more than 100 "present" votes in the data we had available. The records show "present" votes were a tiny proportion of the more than 4,000 that Obama cast during his tenure in the chamber. Obama's presidential campaign has depicted them as strategic in nature: Either Obama was working with Democratic leaders to thwart Republican legislation when the GOP controlled the Senate, registering opposition to proposals he thought were unconstitutional or ineffective; or he was providing political help to moderates who were under pressure to support some of the bills.
But Illinois political observers and some of Obama's former colleagues in the state house say some of the votes also allowed Obama to further his own ambitions, particularly in the 91st session, when the future U.S. senator and presidential candidate was mulling what turned out to be an unsuccessful challenge to incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, an African-American congressman from Chicago's south side.
State Sen. Christine Radogno, a Republican who represents a suburban Chicago district, recalls Obama voting present on a bill she sponsored that would have charged youths as young as 15 as adults if they committed a crime with a gun on or near school grounds.
Radogno said the bill posed a problem for Obama because he wanted to project a reputation for being a law-and-order legislator yet acknowledged opposition to the bill within the African-American community. He wound up being one of five senators voting "present," saying in a floor speech that there was no evidence that stricter penalties actually reduced crime; the bill overwhelmingly passed the chamber, 52-yes, 1-no, 5-present.
"It was trying to make everybody happy. If you vote yes or no, it's pretty clear you've made a decision, then you move on," Radogno said. "It's truthful to say part of the time he was using present votes to duck tough votes."
Although many of Obama's "present" votes were part of a large bloc of presents, which would support his contention that he was part of a broader strategy, the records show that sometimes Obama was one of a small minority of senators, or the only one, to register present votes on several other criminal justice and children and families issues.
He was the only senator to vote present on a bill that passed both chambers with no opposition in the 91st session that allowed some victims of sex crimes to petition judges to seal the records in their cases. Obama's campaign said he believed at the time that the bill violated the First Amendment, though it's not clear why he didn't just vote "no."
And Obama also was the lone senator to vote "present" on a bill that passed in the 91st session with no opposition that would have toughened child adoption standards by expanding the definition of parental unfitness. Former state Sen. Doris Karpiel, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said she never sought an explanation. Obama's campaign has not provided one.
Obama also was one of two senators who voted "present" on a bill that passed 52-2-2 to allow facts not presented to a jury during a trial to be used later to increase the defendant's sentence beyond the ordinary maximum. Obama's campaign said he felt the bill was rushed for a vote and required more discussion.
Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Obama, in theory, could have voted "no" on many of the bills he disagreed with because he held a comparatively safe seat on Chicago's south side. While Mooney says it's difficult to assess the motives behind each vote, the willingness to vote "present" was evidence of a certain type of survival instinct and herd mentality that pervades the state house in Springfield.
"Everybody in the Senate votes this way. There's safety in numbers and no one wants to take the stand-up vote," Mooney said. "Illinois politics isn't the politics of bravery."
State Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski, a Republican who served with Obama, said the popularity of voting "present" has proven a convenient way for lawmakers to avoid the issue at hand – particularly for those "on the ballot or seeking higher office at a given time."
If a difficult issue comes up later, having voted "present," "provides an opportunity to defend the vote one way or another," Burzynski said.
But Burzynski and several other former colleagues of Obama say that while he was in the Illinois state senate he was not particularly vocal, making it difficult to assess his motivations.
Republicans controlled the state Senate for most of Obama's tenure, and under former Majority Leader James "Pate" Philip, the GOP regularly forced tough votes on social issues, which put Democrats representing swing districts in a tough spot. If they voted too often with liberal Democrats on such things as abortion restrictions, they would be targeted by Republicans for defeat.
To counter this, Democratic leaders and their allies sometimes encouraged senators from solidly Democratic districts to vote "present" to block legislation they opposed, thus blurring distinctions between staunch bill opponents and those who were on the fence.
The strategy was put into practice in the 92nd session on several abortion-related bills that PolitiFact previously dealt with, including a measure extending legal rights to infants born alive as the result of an induced abortion. Obama, who viewed the proposal as restrictive of abortion rights, voted "present" to encourage centrist colleagues to do the same, according to Pam Sutherland, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council.
She sad she hatched the strategy with Obama and it worked. The measure failed, with 33 yeas, 6 nays and 13 voting present.
"In that respect, this (the present vote) made him a leader, not someone trying to avoid the issue," Sutherland said.
Sometimes, Obama voted "present" to register concern about the constitutionality or legal weaknesses of bills that had bipartisan support, such as a measure in the 92nd session to prohibit sex shops from opening near schools or places of worship. Obama, who said a state law to that effect would trump local zoning ordinances and, thus, usurp home rule, was one of five senators who voted "present."
Fifteen other senators voted "no." Because supporters could only muster 33 yeas, the bill fell short of the majority required for passage.
The review of legislative records also shows Obama on at least 55 occasions voted "present" with a dozen or more senators, often acting in concert with Democrats as part of battles over budget and spending bills. This trend tailed off after Democrats took control of the chamber in 2003.
Though Obama may have been a loyal foot-soldier in these instances, he never seemed to entirely buy into the go-along-get-along ethos of the state house. That has left observers unsure whether Clinton's claims about his motives while in the state senate are valid, or whether he simply was an odd duck prone to going his own way.
"He was a smart guy, interested in policy, good on his feet and not as ideologically interested in what government could do to help," said the University of Illinois' Mooney. "Here, they're typically interested in what government is going to do to help the person involved. In that way, he didn't exactly fit in."
HillaryClinton.com, "Sen. Obama's 129 Present Votes"
Interview with state Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski, Feb. 11, 2008.
Interview with former state Sen. Doris Karpiel, Feb. 11, 2008.
Interview with state Sen. Christine Radogno, Feb. 8, 2008.
Interview with University of Illinois political scientist Christopher Mooney, Feb. 4, 2008.
Interview with Illinois Planned Parenthood Council Chief Executive Officer Pam Sutherland, Jan. 24, 2008.
Jan. 21 Democratic debate Transcript
New York Times "It's Not Just 'Ayes' and 'Nays:' Obama's Votes in Illinois Echo," Raymond Hernandez and Christopher Drew, Dec. 20, 2007.