Friday, May 30, 2014

Abstentions are cop-outs

     One of the famous lame quotes from former President George W. Bush was this: “I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” He made the statement in defense of his decision to keep Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in the face of calls for his resignation during the Iraq War.

     Despite Bush’s awkward construction, he made the point that it was his job to decide whom to appoint and whom to dismiss from his cabinet. In those matters, the law put him clearly in charge.

     The law puts elected officials in charge of an untold number of decisions every day. That’s why Americans elect leaders: to study public issues and to make choices.

     Even so, when things become contentious, unclear or merely uncomfortable, elected officials called on to vote sometimes say, “I abstain.”

     An abstention is different than disqualifying oneself from voting because of a conflict of interest. Idaho law requires that local elected officials who have a conflict of interest must not only declare it, but must not participate in deliberations on the matter. So as not to influence their colleagues, most will leave the room when the matter is under discussion.

     In contrast, when an elected official abstains from voting, the official is simply refusing to do his or her job. Or, the official is declaring in those two words that he or she hasn’t done the necessary homework. A need for “more information” is never an acceptable excuse for not voting.

     For an elected official, abstaining from voting is not the moral equivalent of abstaining from smoking, drinking or doing drugs, even though it may sound like it. It is the equivalent of not showing up to do the job for which one’s been hired.

     That would get someone fired in the private sector, and it should be no more acceptable in the public sphere.

     An abstention by an elected official should immediately be followed by the declaration, “I resign.”

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