Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Why Obama voted "Present."

In recent months, US Senator Barack Obama has been hammered, quite unfairly, for his present votes during his tenure in the Illinois state legislature from 1997 to 2004. Peculiar as it may sound, in Illinois, legislators have three voting options available to them: Yea, Nay, and Present. In fact, one of the most common reasons for voting Present is the senator's determination that the bill in question would be unconstitutional. It needn't be distorted as waffling.

In March 2001, Sen. Obama voted Present in the Illinois State Senate on a series thinly disguised anti-abortion bills, so-called "born-alive" bills that sought to protect aborted fetuses determined to be "possibly viable." He took a lot of flak on this for not voting Nay—from the left for not taking a "bolder stand" for women's right to choose, and from the right for not backing up his "tough talk" rhetoric.

Senate Bill 1093 was the first in the series of three bills in which he voted Present. During the discussion, Obama alone among the senators presented a lucid defense of abortion rights in asserting the bill's unconstitutionality. In the end, the bill passed by a vote of 34 Aye, 6 Nay, and 12 Present. His vote was, in this context, a principled stand against voting for a bill that would be struck down by the courts:

Illinois Senate Transcript: March 21, 2001, Senate Bill 1093

Senator Obama:
". . . I recall the last time we had a debate about abortion, we passed a bill out of here. I suggested to Members of the Judiciary Committee that it was unconsitutional and it would be struck down by the Seventh Circuit. It was.

I recognize this is a passionate issue and so I -- I won't, as I said, belabor the point. I think it's important to recognize though that this is an area where potentially we might have compromised and -- and arrived at a bill that dealt with the narrow concerns about how a -- a previable fetus or child was treated by a hospital. We decided not to do that.

We're going much further than that in this bill. As a consequence, I think that we will probably end up in court once again, as we often do, on this issue. And as a consequence, I'll be voting Present."

Final vote on the bill was 34 Aye, 6 Nay, and 12 Present.

Discussion of bill begins on page 84; Obama's remarks are on pages 85-87:


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