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.
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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.
The record has become an issue on the presidential campaign trail, as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, has seized on the present votes he cast on a series of anti-abortion bills to portray Mr. Obama as a “talker” rather than a “doer.”
Although a present vote is not unusual in Illinois, Mr. Obama’s use of it is being raised as he tries to distinguish himself as a leader who will take on the tough issues, even if it means telling people the “hard truths” they do not want to hear.
Mr. Obama’s aides and some allies dispute the characterization that a present vote is tantamount to ducking an issue. They said Mr. Obama cast 4,000 votes in the Illinois Senate and used the present vote to protest bills that he believed had been drafted unconstitutionally or as part of a broader legislative strategy.
“No politically motivated attacks in the 11th hour of a closely contested campaign can erase a record of leadership and courage,” said Bill Burton, Mr. Obama’s spokesman.
An examination of Illinois records shows at least 36 times when Mr. Obama was either the only state senator to vote present or was part of a group of six or fewer to vote that way.
In more than 50 votes, he seemed to be acting in concert with other Democrats as part of a strategy.
For a juvenile-justice bill, lobbyists and fellow lawmakers say, a political calculus could have been behind Mr. Obama’s present vote. On other measures like the anti-abortion bills, which Republicans proposed, Mr. Obama voted present to help more vulnerable Democrats under pressure to cast “no” votes.
In other cases, Mr. Obama’s present votes stood out among widespread support as he tried to use them to register legal and other objections to parts of the bills.
In Illinois, political experts say voting present is a relatively common way for lawmakers to express disapproval of a measure. It can at times help avoid running the risks of voting no, they add.
“If you are worried about your next election, the present vote gives you political cover,” said Kent D. Redfield, a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “This is an option that does not exist in every state and reflects Illinois political culture.”
The vote on the juvenile-justice bill appears to be a case when Mr. Obama, who represented a racially mixed district on the South Side of Chicago, faced pressure. It also occurred about six months before he announced an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against a popular black congressman, Bobby L. Rush.
State Senator Christine Radogno, a Republican, was a co-sponsor of the bill to let children as young as 15 be prosecuted as adults if charged with committing a crime with a firearm on or near school grounds.
The measure passed both houses overwhelmingly. In explaining his present vote on the floor of the Senate, Mr. Obama said there was no proof that increasing penalties for young offenders reduced crime, though he acknowledged that the bill had fairly unanimous support.
“Voting present was a way to satisfy those two competing interests,” Ms. Radogno said in a telephone interview.
Thom Mannard, director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said political calculation could have figured in that vote.
“If he voted a flat-out no,” Mr. Mannard said, “somebody down the road could say Obama took this vote and was soft on crime.”
Mr. Obama’s aides said he was more concerned about whether the bill would be effective rather than with its political consequences. They did not explain why he did not just vote no.
Lawmakers and other Illinois officials said the present vote was devised to enable lawmakers to recuse themselves from voting on bills that present personal conflicts. It can also be used in the routine day-to-day wrangling in the legislature.
In at least 45 instances, Mr. Obama voted with large numbers of fellow Democrats as part of the tactical skirmishing with Republicans over the budget.
Seven other times, he voted that way as part of a broad strategy devised by abortion rights advocates to counter anti-abortion bills.
Pam Sutherland, president of Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, said Mr. Obama was one of the senators with a strong stand for abortion rights whom the organization approached about using the strategy. Ms. Sutherland said the Republicans were trying to force Democrats from conservative districts to register politically controversial no votes.
Ms. Sutherland said Mr. Obama had initially resisted the strategy because he wanted to vote against the anti-abortion measures.
“He said, ‘I’m opposed to this,’” she recalled.
But the organization argued that a present vote would be difficult for Republicans to use in campaign literature against Democrats from moderate and conservative districts who favored abortion rights.
Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general who was in the Illinois Senate with Mr. Obama from 1998 through 2002, said she and Mr. Obama voted present on the anti-abortion bills.
“It’s just plain wrong to imply that voting present reflected a lack of leadership,” Ms. Madigan said. “In fact, it was the exact opposite.”
In other present votes, Mr. Obama, who also taught law at the University of Chicago while in the State Senate, said he had concerns about the constitutionality or effectiveness of some provisions.
Among those, Mr. Obama did not vote yes or no on a bill that would allow certain victims of sexual crimes to petition judges to seal court records relating to their cases. He also voted present on a bill to impose stricter standards for evidence a judge is permitted to consider in imposing a criminal sentence.
On the sex crime bill, Mr. Obama cast the lone present vote in a 58-to-0 vote.
Mr. Obama’s campaign said he believed that the bill violated the First Amendment. The bill passed 112-0-0 in the House and 58-0-1 in the Senate.
In 2000, Mr. Obama was one of two senators who voted present on a bill on whether facts not presented to a jury could later be the basis for increasing an offender’s sentence beyond the ordinary maximum.
State Representative Jim Durkin, a Republican who was a co-sponsor of the bill, said it was intended to bring state law in line with a United States Supreme Court decision that nullified a practice of introducing new evidence to a judge in the sentencing phase of the trial, after a jury conviction on other charges.
The bill sailed through both chambers. Out of 174 votes cast in the House and Senate, two were against and two were present, including Mr. Obama’s.
“I don’t understand why you would oppose it,” Mr. Durkin said. “But I am more confused by a present vote.”
Register his dissatisfaction
Mr. Obama’s campaign said he voted present to register his dissatisfaction with how the bill was put together. He believed, the campaign said, that the bill was rushed to the floor and that lawmakers were deprived of time to consider it.
Mr. Obama was also the sole present vote on a bill that easily passed the Senate that would require teaching respect for others in schools. He also voted present on a measure to prohibit sex-related shops from opening near schools or places of worship. It passed the Senate.
In both of those cases, his campaign said, he was trying to avoid mandates on local authorities.
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times