CHICAGO
10/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Obama's 'Present' Votes Really Mean

Barack Obama's 129 'present' votes in the Illinois Senate have often been used against him during the presidential campaign.

Hillary Clinton raised the votes as evidence of Obama'a slipperiness and indecision during the primaries, and the charge resurfaced last week during the Republican National Convention.

From Rudy Giuliani's convention speech:

[Obama] ran for the state legislature and he got elected, 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. He voted . . . 'present.'

But a 'present' vote is not 'maybe,' says Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, after consulting Democratic and Republican state legislators.

Because bills need "yes" votes to pass, "present" translates to "a soft no," as Deputy Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont put it.

"One use for it is when you favor an idea, but you think the bill has a fatal flaw of some sort," she said. "Another is when you have a conflict of interest. And another is when you want to play both sides of the fence . . . or to avoid casting a vote that your next opponent will try to take out of context."

Across the aisle, Sen. John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, defined "present" as "no with an explanation."

Cullerton said another use of the seemingly squirrelly vote is to "signify displeasure with the process, but not the concept." He added that you'd be hard-pressed to find members of the General Assembly--including key allies of John McCain--who don't use it from time to time for various reasons.

Read the entire column here.