Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Obama's Record: Why Voting 'Present' Is Meaningful and Not the Same As Not Showing Up

Barack Obama's 136 "present" votes in the Illinois State Legislature - in which he voted "present" rather than "yes" or "no" about passage of bills - was a hot topic in last night's Democratic debate on CNN in South Carolina. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards both jumped on Obama for his "present" votes, and Edwards, in particular, spoke of the "present" votes as the same as Obama's just "not showing up" for the votes.

I have never served in government, but I've been an active participant in academic governance for more years than I care to remember (all faculty are, and I have also been Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University for the past six years). So perhaps I can shed some useful light on this issue.

In a sentence: in academic governance, abstaining (the equivalent of voting "present") is a highly meaningful type of vote, one which usually bespeaks considerable contemplation of the issues, and is therefore utterly different from not showing up for the vote.

To give further detail: In the academic world, personnel committee meetings - in which reappointment, promotion, and tenure matters are considered - are the most important issues upon which members of a faculty vote. So important is the participation of faculty in such issues, that faculty who do not attend can be reprimanded, and worse, by the administration.

In contrast, in any matter upon which faculty vote, the choices are "yes," "no," and "abstain". Why would someone vote "abstain"? The reasons usually stated are the abstaining voter is in favor of the matter proceeding, but has some problem with some part of it, large or small. These sorts of abstention votes are clearly often the result of intense deliberation and careful consideration by the voter - or, the complete opposite of just not coming by to vote.

This struck me as exactly what Obama was trying to explain last night, as he was being pounded by Hillary and Edwards on his "present" votes. He clearly said he was in favor of one of the bills for which he voted "present," but had a technical problem with its means of implementation.

I think it's important that the media and the American people understand this.

Obama's record certainly is not perfect. In the vote in the US Senate about labeling Iran a terrorist nation last year, Obama indeed did not show up to vote. I wish he had showed up and voted no. (But Hillary, who did show up, voted "yes," and John Edwards is no longer in the Senate.)

But, if voting in academic governance is at all similar to voting in the Illinois State Legislature - and democratic voting processes usually do have a lot in common - it is completely wrong to characterize Obama's "present" votes in Illinois as not showing up or evading responsibility.
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