“Present” but Unaccountable: Senator Obama’s Illinois Voting Record

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

Yesterday, the NY Times discussed Senator Obama’s penchant for using a quirk of the Illinois Statehouse to sidestep contentious issues that might jeopardize his reelection chances. Or, it’s simply a device that allows legislators there to voice legitimate concerns with a bill without voting either for or against it. You decide. It’s called voting “present,” as opposed to yea or nay, and it’s pretty confusing to figure out. Is it a dirty trick or a proof that he’s a smart cookie who simply knows how to be an effective politician?

In 1999, Barack Obama was faced with a difficult vote in the Illinois legislature — to support a bill that would let some juveniles be tried as adults, a position that risked drawing fire from African-Americans, or to oppose it, possibly undermining his image as a tough-on-crime moderate.

In the end, Mr. Obama chose neither to vote for nor against the bill. He voted “present,” effectively sidestepping the issue, an option he invoked nearly 130 times as a state senator.

Sometimes the “present’ votes were in line with instructions from Democratic leaders or because he objected to provisions in bills that he might otherwise support. At other times, Mr. Obama voted present on questions that had overwhelming bipartisan support. In at least a few cases, the issue was politically sensitive


Taylor Marsh, at the Huffington Post is certainly steamed at Obama about it (and at Obama in general apparently from the tone of the piece). She’s pretty sure he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing using ‘present’ votes to focus more on ducking responsibility on serious issues than on dealing with those serious issues:

…Obama is continually talking about Clinton being a “triangulator,” as do many of the Hillary haters. People talking about her calculations. I don’t agree with all of her votes, especially on some foreign policy matters, particularly her Iraq war vote, but also Kyl-Lieberman. But when she’s pushed she votes and puts herself on the line. She never votes “present” when it matters. When pushed at YearlyKos on lobbyists she could have pandered. She didn’t. She also took the heat, including boos. She didn’t back down over Kyl-Lieberman either, even though it cost her in grumbling. It’s what she believes, with Wesley Clark and Joseph Wilson backing her. []

Obama got a pass when going after her on Kyl-Lieberman, even though he voted for similar legislation earlier in the year, but more importantly, skipped the vote that would have put him on the record. He also has the exact same votes as Clinton on Iraq, and when Senators Kerry and Feingold offered legislation on the floor to redeploy, Mr. Obama made a speech against it. Not to mention that he never held a hearing on his own foreign relations subcommittee. He also skipped the MoveOn.org vote too. How convenient it is just not to show up and be counted. It’s a lot easier. But it’s not more principled, no matter your excuse. It’s triangulating. It is also quite calculating. Because what better way to hit your opponent than to duck a tough vote where she was counted, and you’d been counted months earlier, then rail against her because no one is paying attention to the facts.

So far, the issue hasn’t got much traction (though Senator Clinton’s team has bought attack sites with names like votingpresent.com) but these are slow news days. Come January, I’ll bet the Obama folks will have spent their holidays coming up with plausible justifications for why he voted “present” rather than “no” on trying black kids as young as 15 as adults. A tough spot for any politician but this is a major part of his whole appeal – the earnest, young straight-talker versus the jaded old school Dems. Bravo for admitting to your drug use and wastrel days, now tell us why you voted “present” if you’re going to keep talking about how your opponent voted for the Iraq war. I’m willing to believe he had his reasons – and that maybe they’re reasons he regrets now – just tell me what they are.

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.