Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ridiculed Sen. Obama tonight at the RNC. No surprise there. He commented on Obama's voting record. But it wasn't quite accurate. Giuliani said Obama voted present instead of "yes" or "no" because he "couldn't make up his mind." Only it's not always so black and white.
As a matter of legislative procedure, a "present" vote can mean a number of things:
It's true that Obama voted "present" dozens of times, part of the thousands of votes he cast in an eight-year span in Springfield. Illinois lawmakers commonly vote that way on a variety of issues, and he has countered that many of those votes were cast because of technical or legal considerations about the underlying legislation.
Often, Obama voted "present" with large groups of other Democrats to protest what they saw as Republican trickery or abuse of power. Other times, voting that way sends a message that a lawmaker supports a bill's intent, but has concerns about how the legislation is drafted. Voting this way also can be a way to duck a difficult issue, as McCain charged, although that's difficult to prove.
There are also cases where legislators vote "present" as part of a strategy. Obama did this on some abortion measures, voting "present" to encourage some wavering legislators to do the same instead of voting "yes". Their "present" votes had the same effect as "no" votes, so getting them to vote present helped defeat the bills.1
Giuliani was long on rhetoric and short on facts. It's not always black and white. In fact, it hardly ever is.
1 Source: Jim Drinkard, McCain's Obama-Palin comparison falls short (9/2/08), http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5hj0INfou9GhMYE2nyalH5O9dKRUwD92UPOLG5