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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Legislative Record

Q: How many times did Obama vote 'present' as a state senator?

A:  He did so 129 times, which represents a little more than 3 percent of his total votes.


I keep reading that Obama has "no legislative accomplishments" and at the GOP convention, Palin kept saying he voted "present" 123 times, or something like that. Can you please fact-check this?


We've received a number of questions from readers asking us how many times Sen. Barack Obama voted "present" in the Illinois state Legislature. The issue was raised by Hillary Clinton in January, when she accused Obama of "taking a pass" on tough issues. Clinton's line of attack has now been picked up by Republicans. It was renewed Sept. 3 in a speech to the Republican convention, not by vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as our questioner recalls, but by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani, Sept. 3: And nearly 130 times, he couldn't make a decision. He couldn't figure out whether to vote "yes" or "no." It was too tough. (Laughter, Applause) He voted — he voted "present." (Boos) I didn't know about this vote "present" when I was mayor of New York City. Sarah Palin didn't have this vote "present" when she was mayor or governor. You don't get "present." It doesn't work in an executive job. For president of the United States, it's not good enough to be present.

Palin and others have picked up this applause line since. As reported by the Chicago Tribune blog "The Swamp":

Palin (Sept. 4): "We don't have a 'present' button as governor,'' Palin said after an appearance before fellow Republican governors in Minneapolis. "We are expected to lead, we are expected to take action and not just vote 'present.' "

Four days later, the attack was repeated by GOP presidential candidate John McCain:

McCain (Road to Victory Rally, Sept. 8): One hundred and thirty times as a member of the Illinois state senate, [Obama] refused to vote. He voted present.

Here are the facts: According to reports by both The New York Times and the Associated Press, Obama voted "present" 129 times as a state senator. The AP reported that Obama said the votes represented a small portion — a little more than 3 percent — of the "roughly 4,000" votes he cast as a member of the state Senate.

The Illinois state Legislature allows members to vote "present" rather than "yes" or "no." The Times reported in December that "present" votes provide a way for lawmakers to voice opposition to an issue. Such votes can also help them avoid the political fall-out of voting "no":

The New York Times (Dec. 20, 2007): 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.”

Obama's allies and supporters have argued that his votes were not an attempt to dodge difficult issues. Instead, according to the Times, they claim Obama "used the present vote to protest bills that he believed had been drafted unconstitutionally or as part of a broader legislative strategy."

The Times found a mixed record:

The New York Times (Dec. 20, 2007): 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.

In a Sept. 4 report, the AP weighed in on the issue again, reporting that a "present" vote, while not the same as a "yes" or "no" vote, could have the same effect:

The Associated Press (Sept. 4): It's true that Obama voted "present" dozens of times, among the thousands of votes he cast in an eight-year span in Springfield. Illinois lawmakers commonly vote that way on a variety of issues for technical, legal or strategic reasons. …Voting this way also can be a way to duck a difficult issue, although that's difficult to prove.

We leave it up to our readers to determine whether Obama's "present" votes were a sign of political weakness or deftness. But the figure McCain cited on the stump is just one vote off.

–Emi Kolawole


McCain, John and Sarah Palin. "Remarks by Presidential Nominee Senator John McCain (R-Az) and Vice Presidential Nominee Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) At a Road to Victory Rally." The Pavilion At JohnKnoxVillage, Lees, Summit, Missouri. 8 Sep. 2008. (Federal News Service)

Hernandez, Raymond and Christopher Drew. "It's Not Just 'Ayes' and 'Nays': Obama's Votes in Illinois Echo." The New York Times. 20 Dec. 2008.

Wills, Christopher. "Fact Check: Obama's 'present' votes." The Associated Press. 24 Jan. 2008.

Kuhnhenn, Jim. "Attacks, praise stretch truth." Associated Press Worldstream. 4 Sep. 2008.