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July 25, 2014
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Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’

Second is the question of precedent. The practice of saying that an abstention means “yes” is unusual in this country. In the United States Congress, for instance, members may vote “present,” which counts neither for nor against the measure at hand, effectively an abstention, and certainly not a “yes.” In the New York State Legislature, an abstention is not counted as either “yes” or “no.”

Of course, “everybody does it” (or doesn’t do it) is not necessarily a conclusive argument. But the rationale given by supporters of the “yes” rule is even less so. The argument is apparently that, if the rules as to conflicts of interest were broadened so that abstentions on the basis of the types of conflict Goodman cites weren’t counted as a “yes,” legislators might use them in order to avoid hard votes and therefore be politically safe.

But in fact, under the current system there’s a 50% chance, with regard to any vote, that legislators will be able to cast exactly the vote they want to cast, and still find political cover in the case that it’s hard or unpopular, by claiming that they had no choice but to abstain (and hence effectively vote yes) due to the ethical necessity to disclose some gift, connection or advantage they have obtained. The current system, in other words, only protects against situations in which politicians would like to vote “no” while absolving themselves of responsibility. (Indeed, in terms of the rationale given for this rule, it would make just as much sense to have an abstention counted as a “no.” The whole thing seems completely arbitrary.)

Both common practice and logic suggest that the advantages of having an abstention count as a vote, either yes or no, are vanishingly small. The interest of public trust, meanwhile, is paramount to a democratic system. Let’s just do it the time-honored way and stop splitting hairs: an abstention is an abstention, a “yes” is a “yes,” and a “no” is a “no.” Both conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety are to be avoided, and the way to do so is to keep the vote of the legislator in question out of the matter entirely.