Where no vote and a no vote are the same…

I was puzzled about the front-page Sacramento Bee article Sunday, which was making a arguable point but doing so in a fundamentally deceiving way.

The news analysis was that individual Democrats in the California Legislature voted with the majority of their party or abstained 99 times out of 100 this session. Republicans, on average, voted with the majority of their party or abstained 96 out of every 100 times.”

The above statistic is just misleading, since it groups together “yes” votes and abstentions–which are fundamentally different in impact and intent.

In the California legislature, bills only pass when they get 50%+1–not of those present, but of the full voting body, regardless of whether members are there or not. In this scenario, not voting is the same as voting “no.”

So in the 40-member Senate, a regular bill needs 21 “yes” votes on the floor. If the 15 Republicans stick together in voting “no,” and 5 of the 25 Democrats are sick, not present, or abstain, the bill fails. There invariably is a member or two that may not be present, which means the margin to pass bills is actually pretty thin. When conservative Democrats oppose a measure, they typically just don’t vote, and the lack of a majority stops the bill.

So an abstention isn’t a sign of agreement–it’s the reverse. And so there is nothing to be learned from an analysis that groups them together–its mush. It’s not just a wrong conclusion, but does a disservice to readers.

The overall point may or may not be true. There’s no doubt that the California legislature–with representatives from Berkeley and Bakersfield–is significantly polarized. But the article confuses, rather than illuminates, the issue.

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