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Not Yes, Not No, Not Even a Maybe

Some legislators choose to abstain rather than vote. It's all about power -- or political cover.

August 28, 2005|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Whenever the state Assembly votes on a bill, there's a good chance Jerome Horton will press neither the green "yes" nor the red "no" button on his desk. He says abstaining makes him powerful.

"When you vote yes or no," said the Democrat from Inglewood, "it takes you out of the negotiations, and I don't ever want to be out of the game."

When lawmakers can't get the votes they need to pass their measures, they rush to court the undecided in hopes of changing an abstention to a "yes" on another round of voting. That gives the abstainer leverage to argue for changes in the bill.

"I'm Mr. 41," said Assemblyman Horton, referring to the last vote needed to pass most bills. "I'm always in the game."

What Horton sees as clout, others see as the shirking of a lawmaker's essential duty. One of Horton's Democratic colleagues, Assemblyman John Laird of Santa Cruz, almost always picks yes or no.

"I just think I was sent up here to vote," Laird said.

A lawmaker has the right to abstain from any -- or every -- vote that occurs during his or her term. But regardless of the reason -- a purposeful dodge, an absence due to illness, a visit to the restroom -- a withheld vote has the same effect as a no vote.

California's legislative rules, unlike those in a few other states, require bills to be passed by a majority of lawmakers -- not a majority of those who happen to be present and voting.

In the only recent study of non-voting by California lawmakers, researchers found that Democrats decline to vote more often than Republicans -- 32% of the time, on average on bills that fail.

Lawmakers skip votes on bills that run from the arcane to the important, from banning the slaughter of farm animals on school campuses to legalizing gay marriage. Veterans say the practice is increasingly common.

"These days you see [non-voting] a lot more," especially in the Assembly, said Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta), who spent eight years in the Senate and is now in his fifth year in the Assembly.

The practice runs counter to a core tenet of democracy: that lawmakers take a stand on behalf of the people who elected them.

"You're there to do a job and to represent your constituents," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "If you're not making decisions ... it seems to me you're not fulfilling your obligation."

Abstentions so annoy one group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, that it has drafted a ballot initiative that would withhold the pay of lawmakers on days when they don't vote.

"If I came to my job and a third of the time didn't do what I was supposed to, I wouldn't have a job," said foundation President Jamie Court, who hopes to put the initiative on the ballot next year.

Abstentions are more common in the 80-seat Assembly, where voting occurs in an electronic rush, than in the smaller Senate, where the roll is called.

When a bill comes up for a vote in the Assembly, a bell rings and lawmakers race to press their plastic buttons. Big scoreboards at the front of the chamber listing all of the members' names light up red and green -- or not at all for those who abstained.

In the Senate, every time a bill comes up for a vote, the clerk reads the last names of all 40 members, waiting to hear yes or no from each. To not vote, a senator must sit unresponsive while his or her name is called repeatedly.

Among the Democrats who dominate the Assembly, some -- Horton, Edward Chavez of La Puente, Simon Salinas of Salinas, Rebecca Cohn of Saratoga and Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello -- abstain more than others.

Chavez, for example, was present but did not vote on 13 of 35 contentious bills voted on the Assembly floor in May and June. Horton abstained on 11 of those, and Salinas, Cohn and Calderon each abstained on eight. More than 30 lawmakers abstained on none or only one of the 35 votes.

Chavez declined to speak on the record about why he abstains so frequently. Cohn and Calderon did not respond to requests for an interview.

Republicans, who make up 32 of the Assembly's 80 members, abstain far less often, and many times they do so en masse to make a point.

Public policy students at USC who studied non-voting during the 2001-02 legislative session found an average abstention rate among Republicans of 13.5%, compared with the Democrats' 32%, on bills that failed.

Assembly records show that one Republican, Keith Richman of Northridge, was present but did not vote on nine of the 35 controversial bills. Most of the votes came on a single day, June 2, when the Assembly session stretched past midnight. Richman's staff said he flew back to his district that afternoon for a personal obligation and missed many votes.

Explanations for non-voting abound among lawmakers, their staffs and political scientists.

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