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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