Present = Blank = Abstain

I understand that in the controversy over whether Mark Fisher got his 15% the Massachusetts Republican Party is contending that in fact the tally did not include “blank” votes but “present” votes. I followed up on the “present” issue earlier today. Since then a commenter named Anthony has written in to say that I misunderstood the rules governing a roll call vote. For those of you who love the cliffhanger of a good parliamentary rules scrubbing, I copy my answer below.

So, is a present equal to a blank or an abstention, and thus not counted in the vote total?Here is my response to Anthony:

I am working from Sarah Corbin Robert, Henry M. Robert II, William J. Evans, eds., Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, 9th edition (Reading, MA: Perseus 1990).

Anthony is correct that in sec. 44 “Voting Procedure” covering roll call votes “those answering present are tallied in a third column, to the far right. . . . the secretary gives the final number of those voting on each side, and the number answering present, to the chair, who announces the figures and declares the result.”

However, a paragraph prior to that describing that present votes should be recorded in a separate column, Robert’s Rules provides: “Each member, as his name is called, responds in the affirmative or negative as shown above. If he does not wish to vote he answers present (or abstain).”

I would read that as “present” is the equivalent of “abstain.”

Section 43 “Bases for Determining a Voting Result” deals with the majority requirement and states a majority is “more than half of the votes cast by persons legally entitled to vote, excluding blanks or abstentions.” When a 2/3 vote is called for, that vote is also calculated excluding blanks and abstentions.

Back to sec. 44, Right of Abstention: “Although it is the duty of every member who has an opinion on a question to express it by his vote, he can abstain, since he cannot be compelled to vote.”

By the way, when a secret ballot is held, the tellers are to ignore blank ballots.

It seems that you can call it a blank, an abstention, or present, the result is the same. Blanks, abstentions, and presents are excluded from the count.

I thank Anthony for encouraging me to look more carefully at sec. 44 “Voting Procedure” though it does not alter my judgment of sec. 43 “Bases for Determining a Voting Result.”

I would add though that I have not assailed anyone’s motives in my analysis of the convention votes and would hope Anthony would extend the same courtesy to me. I certainly did not accuse anyone of voter suppression.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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9 Responses to Present = Blank = Abstain

  1. Dr. Ed says:

    “those answering present are tallied in a third column, to the far right

    Three Questions:

    1: As I understand it, voting “present” is ONLY possible in a roll call vote and that is because it is a resolution between the inability of the chair to compel someone to vote and the obligation of a member to respond when directly addressed by the chair. The chair can’t make a member vote, but the chair can (and has the duty to) ensure that a member has the opportunity to vote. There may be real reasons why the member didn’t realize it was his turn to vote (not paying attention, hard of hearing, asleep, etc) and the vote of “present” exists so the member can tell the chair that he/she/it isn’t going to vote, but did hear the chair, and thus permits the chair to go to the next person.

    Furthermore, as I understand it, the ONLY reason a “present” vote is recorded is so that if a challenge is made to either the vote total or that not everyone was asked to vote, the secretary can go through and confirm that everyone responded *and* that the totals, if those who decided not to vote, equal the number of people who are there.

    By contrast, if you don’t want to vote in anything other than a roll call, you just don’t do it. You aren’t compelled to respond in the same way.

    2: Exactly what are there for voting results? I’ve asked this before — are there blank paper ballots, paper ballots with “present” written on them, a notebook page with “present” checked off — or (what I suspect) just nothing checked off for the 64 people.

    Facts matter folks — and regardless of what side one is on, anyone who is intellectually honest has to agree that what was done is what was done and there isn’t any need to obscure that. So what WAS done????

    3: If this goes to court — and I presume it theoretically could — what then? It’s not going to go to trial before November, let alone whenever the primary should have been, so what would be the relief? It’s one thing for a student government to toss the victor of an election out of office (and I’ve seen that happen twice at UMass Amherst), it’s something else entirely if you are to toss an elected Governor out of office and tell the party to re-do stuff.

    This could get really messy really really fast….

  2. Jeff Semon says:

    Ed Markey knows something about voting present….maybe he has some thoughts. :)

  3. jerold says:

    Good one Jeff. Luv it when partisan humor is undeniably funny.

  4. Professor Cunningham: You make a thoroughly valid point in your interpretation of how to calculate a vote. The Robert’s people would be proud to consider you a parliamentarian. There is ample precedent in Massachusetts to demonstrate that, unless you specifically provide for a “present” vote by adopting an exception to Roberts’ Rules of Order, a failure to respond with a “Yea” or ‘Nay” is an abstention and lowers the number of votes necessary to cross a threshold. Several Massachusetts city school committees have a special “present” vote provision specifically so that people can avoid taking a position but still keep the “majority” at a higher number.

    You are absolutely correct in citing that the missing blanks should not be counted in calculating the majority or any threshold striven for under the rules. Blanks and abstentions are treated as one and the same. People who leave the ballot blank are considered to be not voting. People who (when allowed to do so) vote “present” can keep the threshold at a higher number.

    • Maurice T. Cunningham says:

      I appreciate that and take it as high praise. For those who don’t know Glenn, he is executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and a former long-serving school committee member in Cambridge. So he has had plenty of experience in parliamentary matters.

  5. Pingback: Fisher Fiasco I: The Law Is An Ass |

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