When is a Vote not a Vote?

I love campaign season. I especially love campaign commercials that talk about voting records, and outrage generated over votes that wouldn’t change the outcome of a bill, amendment, motion, or resolution (all different kinds of votes).

Why do I mean?

Some bodies are simple. The FCC has five members. One member has a tremendous amount of power if the positions of the other members are known. The Supreme Court, although not a political or regulatory body, is the same way, sort of.

Now, let’s look at our two houses of Congress. The House of Representatives, has 435 members. The Senate? 100. They regularly vote on stuff. Like I said before, some votes matter, others don’t. Some of the most important votes are made in Committees, where bills are often moved by voice vote with no record taken.

What you see on C-SPAN might be a vote to pass a bill, or an amendment to a bill, or something entirely different.

So, am I going anywhere with this?

FISA. Lots of people opposed it, but voted for it anyway in the Senate. You might call it a flip-flop, but if you step back a bit you realize that when you get to the floor and see the vote totals, you can either a) cast a protest vote that won’t change the outcome or b) not open a line of attack for the other party against you.

Now, I’m not endorsing any candidate, and my political views are not relevant to anything written here. But I do want to address something that was thrown at me during a podcast a few days ago, that a certain Presidential Candidate voted “Present” 100 times during his multi-year tenure in the Illinois State Senate. Obviously, this means the man is indecisive, right?

No, it means that someone thinks you’re stupid.

Members can vote present if they don’t feel they know enough to make an informed vote, or if they have a personal interest in the outcome, or if they simply do not feel their constituents have a dog in the fight. IF the vote isn’t close, why does it matter?

Note to bloggers, armchair pundits, and netroots: not all votes are created equal.

People love little mini-statistics they can latch onto as truths, when to really understand what happens requires a deeper understanding of the process.

Media love giving people the mini-statistics. They’re easy. They sound good. It’s much more simple than explaining what exactly is going on and where it fits in the “big picture.” People don’t instinctively want to know every little detail.

But every little detail can be distorted to form a “fact.” Did that candidate vote to raise taxes 1,000 times? No. Did he vote on amendments or procedural votes having to do with the bill? Maybe. How many of those votes were in Committee, and how many were actual votes on “final passage?” Is it possible to vote for something before you vote against it? Absolutely.

You won’t see that in the news, or in an ad. You need to go search for that, and dig through sometimes hard to find records.

If it sounds too simple, it probably is. Go look it up if it matters to you.

The nice thing is, you can see the records, and check for yourself.