I was curious about Barack Obama’s record of casting ‘present’ votes in the Illinois legislature, so I decided to go back and look at some Senate transcripts from his first term to see what more I could learn. I was surprised at what I found.
At least in his first two years in the Senate, Obama seemed to have an unusual problem just casting votes — physically. Sometimes he simply missed the votes (recall his debate admission that he is very disorganized. Other times he cast votes, but later said that he had accidentally voted the wrong way. Some highlights:
March 14, 1997 Thank you Madam Speaker (sic). Will the sponsor yield? I let this – I voted to have this bill come out of committee, because I think it was useful to have this kind of discussion on the bill, and I think the Senator has good intent… So although I did vote Yes to get this out of the committee, I – as currently constituted in light of the discussion, I think that it may – I will probably vote in opposition to the bill.
March 18, 1997 This is actually on the previous bill, 1076. I pressed yes, but my button didn’t come up.
March 19, 1997 The – yesterday on Senate Bill 1000, I should have – I was trying to vote Yes on this and I was recorded as a No. Just wanted to have that in the record.
March 20, 1997 Yes, Madam President. On Senate bill 700, I should have pressed a Yes vote; pressed a Present vote. I’d like that reflected in the record, please.
May 13, 1997 Yes, Mr. President. I was off the floor and I was wondering if we were going to go back on 2nd reading. I’d ask the body for 2147. Move it from 2nd to 3rd.
May 28, 1997 Thank you, Madam President. My button seems to be sticking. So I was recorded as not voting on that; I would have voted aye.
October 30, 1997 Thank you, Madam President, Members of the Chamber, the sponsor. Let me start off by just saying that – I want to apologize to the sponsor because the – I’m originally recorded as a – as a Yes vote on this, and it’s an indication, I think, that I wasn’t paying sufficient attention. I do have concerns on this bill, and I just want to express those concerns very quickly…
November 14, 1997 Thank you, Mr. President. I had the same problem on Senate Bill 493. I’d like to be recorded as a No vote.
[Later that same day]
Thank you, Mr. President. On Senate Bill 452, I was out in the hall when the vote came up and I didn’t get back here in time. I would like to be recorded as a Yes vote.
May 22, 1998 I apologize, Mr. President. I was off the floor and missed House Bill 1706. I just wanted to record that I would have voted in the affirmative.
I haven’t looked at the rest of his tenure in the Senate to determine if this problem continued after his first term (1997-1998). But it certainly is odd.
There’s a maxim among Members of Congress that you can’t go too far wrong voting for a bill that fails, or against a bill that passes. In either case, half the people are happy because of the outcome of the vote, and the other half are happy that you voted with them. No one can hold anything against you.
Was Obama trying to take this one step further, and actually vote ‘both ways?’ If so, then it was a master stroke to hit on the idea of voting ‘present.’ That’s a lot simpler than constantly explaining accidental votes.