Not Yes, Not No, Not Even a Maybe
SACRAMENTO â€" 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
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
â€" or every â€" vote that occurs
during his or her term. But regardless of the reason
â€" a purposeful dodge, an absence due to
illness, a visit to the restroom â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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
The practice runs counter to a core tenet of democracy:
that lawmakers take a stand on behalf of the people who
"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 â€¦ 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 â€"
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
Among the Democrats who dominate the Assembly, some
â€" Horton, Edward Chavez of La Puente, Simon
Salinas of Salinas, Rebecca Cohn of Saratoga and Ronald S.
Calderon of Montebello â€" abstain more than
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
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
Explanations for non-voting abound among lawmakers, their
staffs and political scientists.
One is cultural. It's considered "in your face," they say,
to vote against a bill written by a member of your party.
Abstaining, some say, is a way to sugar-coat a no so it
won't offend a colleague or a committee chair who could
exact revenge on your own legislation.
"I know it's stupid, but there is a psychological effect in
people when you vote no on their bill," said Assemblyman
Alberto Torrico (D-Newark), who in June abstained on
several bills dealing with air pollution, land use and
"My constituents want me to be effective," Torrico said,
"and one way to be effective is to not [anger] senators and
Assembly members." Torrico said he could avoid the problem
"by laying off stuff instead of saying no."
Freshman Assemblyman Juan Arambula (D-Fresno) knows about
the expectation that members will "go along to get along."
Not long after he voted against a few Democratic bills, he
said, another Democrat asked whether he was inadvertently
pressing the wrong button.
"I jokingly said I had learned my colors in first grade,"
said Arambula, a former Fresno County supervisor.
Another member said to him: "Didn't you know that you're
not supposed to vote against other Democrats' bills?"
Sometimes, lawmakers say, they abstain to avoid "throwing
away" a vote that would anger a constituent or donor.
Torrico, for example, originally voted for a bill, AB 1101,
to regulate air pollution at ports, airports, rail yards
and distribution centers where diesel trucks congregate. He
supported it even though it was opposed, he said, by New
United Motor Manufacturing, a General Motors-Toyota venture
that employs 5,000 people in his Bay Area district.
"I thought, 'This is a good bill,' " Torrico said.
Bills that don't pass the first time may be brought up
repeatedly by the author, and subsequent votes showed the
diesel measure would probably fail. In the end, Torrico
abstained, opting not to attach his name to a losing
proposition that might have offended one of his district's
"It was going nowhere," said Torrico. "And I said: What's
the point of me being on the bill?"
Horton, for his part, said he wouldn't feel compelled to
abstain so often if committees, which are supposed to
massage bills into shape and kill those that are fatally
flawed, did their jobs better. The assemblyman said the
bills he abstains on often end up being vetoed by the
governor or needing follow-up legislation to fix technical
"If we spend 30 minutes on an issue [in committee],
everyone's attention deficit sets in," Horton said. "We're
spending five, 10, 15 minutes on issues that will affect
hundreds of thousands of people.
"Sometimes I think the only time a policy gets challenged
effectively is when it gets to the floor," he said. That
can result in poor legislation, Horton said. "We're turning
out broken products. Sometimes you have to participate in
that; sometimes you don't."
Horton said the Legislature was "more political than we've
ever been before, and less methodical and thoughtful," and
"term limits has caused this."
Many lawmakers and experts agree that term limits are a
factor. Passed by voters in 1990, the limits force
legislators out after six years in the Assembly or eight
years in the Senate.
Politicians who always have an eye on another office are
less willing to cross the special interests that push
legislation and fund campaigns, many said.
"Under term limits, people know their next race for office
is in two or four or six years, and they're looking over
their shoulder to see who they need to avoid offending,"
said Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), who rarely
abstains. "I think that's part of where the abstentions
One group of 14 Assembly Democrats with more moderate,
pro-business views than those of their liberal colleagues
makes regular use of abstentions as a way to get bills
changed. Salinas, a member of the "mod" caucus, said
"people were more coordinated to send a message" with
abstentions this year.
For example, as the Assembly faced a June 3 deadline to
pass its proposals to the Senate, the "mod" caucus
considered AB 1007 by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura
Hills). The bill would have required the California Air
Resources Board to write a plan to increase the use of
alternative fuels such as ethanol in California. It also
would have authorized the board to require use of
alternative fuels in cars and trucks.
The measure was opposed by the Western States Petroleum
Assn., which has spent $1.4 million lobbying for and
against various bills this year, and the California
Trucking Assn., whose members have given a wide range of
lawmakers a total of $47,000 this year.
Pavley's bill failed to pass on several votes June 2,
largely because "mod" caucus members abstained. Pavley
negotiated with Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg),
a caucus leader, and Calderon, who relayed the petroleum
association's concerns. Pavley agreed to delete the second
half of the bill, which would have expanded the air board's
On June 3, after Pavley promised to change the bill so it
simply required a plan by the air board, the measure
cleared the Assembly, 49 to 27.
Court, the consumer advocate, complains that abstention "is
a way special interests have found to get lawmakers to do
what they want."
Canciamilla dismisses that criticism, saying moderate
caucus members tend to represent blue-collar districts wary
of government regulation.
"Not all of us believe that regulatory agencies or boards
can best serve the needs of the public when they are given
carte blanche," said Canciamilla. The Pavley bill, he said,
shows that "if it's used judiciously and in the proper
context," abstention is "a constructive device and useful
Pavley sees it another way. She noted that the idea for the
bill was brought to her by Silicon Valley business leaders
who see economic and environmental benefits to weaning
California from petroleum.
"I didn't consider the fuels bill anti-business," Pavley
said, "but it was heavily lobbied by WSPA [Western States
Petroleum Assn.], and that was all it took."
The only recent analysis of non-voting in the Legislature
is the USC study. The researchers analyzed the 2001-02
legislative session and concluded that abstentions were
decisive in nearly 40% of the bills that failed
â€" many bills got more yes votes than no votes
but still failed because so many lawmakers abstained.
The study also ranked Assembly members by how often they
abstained on 328 bills that failed. The top non-voter was
Horton, who abstained on 60% of the bills that failed. (He
abstained on 7% of a sample of 400 bills that ultimately
Close behind in abstentions were Democrats Tony Cardenas of
Panorama City, Kevin Shelley of San Francisco, Gil Cedillo
of Los Angeles and Manny Diaz of San Jose. Only Horton and
Cedillo are still in the Legislature. Cedillo was
frequently absent that year to tend to his ailing wife.
See the article on Los Angeles Times website