Back in March 26th, of 2019, Mitch McConnell forced a vote on the Green New Deal resolution proposed by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and later Ed Markey. The vote ended as such:

The measure, which needed 60 votes to clear a procedural hurdle, failed in a 0-57 vote, with 43 Democrats voting present.

This done as an apparent form of protest as claimed by this article:

The measure will require 60 votes to advance and is expected to fail, both because Republicans hold the majority in the Senate and because many Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are expected to vote present in protest of what they call an openly political show-vote. It’s possible the vote could slip to Wednesday.

Without watching CSPAN of how exactly everything went down, the average person is left to judge the votes as is; i.e. it is the only objective measure of whether each Senator wanted the bill to pass or not. And given that there were no votes in favor, judging by votes only, no Senator wanted that bill to pass. I do not see how someone can arrive at the inference of a "protest vote" on procedure based simply on the votes alone. The inference that can be arrived at with the least assumptions is that no Senator wanted the bill to pass as written. This has lead me to ask the question....


Knowing only the voting patterns, how was voting "present" on the Green New Deal resolution meant to be taken as a protest?

  • Just to clarify, you're asking us to ask why Senators decided to take a particular decision on a vote, and don't want us to use the context of the vote to answer the question?
    – Joe C
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 20:59
  • @Joe C Yes, that keeps this question in scope of Senate procedure.
    – isakbob
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 21:00

1 Answer 1


This question can't be answered as written, because a mass "present" vote is a relatively rare (although becoming more common) occurrence that is always related to the politics of the specific bill in question.

Here is an article about a "present" vote in 2013 which says:

[I]f the Democrats had voted “no”, some Republicans could have voted “yes” to position themselves as strong conservatives, knowing full well that the budget would never pass. Thus, the Democrats used a “divide-and-conquer” strategy both to try to embarrass the Republican leadership and exacerbate tensions between the conservative and the “even-more-conservative” members of the GOP Conference.

The Democrats tried this maneuver in 2011 as well. But other than that, it’s rarely used. During [the 113th] Congress, on most recorded votes, no one has voted “present”. Most of the times when there is a present vote, only one person votes that way – usually because they have declared a personal conflict of interest or to make a political point; aside from the vote in question today, only twice [in the 113th] Congress has more than one person voted present, and even then, it was only two people.

Voting present in this case was a legislative tactic. As one expert pointed out, sometimes the majority party relies on the minority party to either ensure a measure fails or succeeds. When the minority votes present en masse, they are forcing the majority party leadership to work extra hard to round up enough votes to guarantee their desired outcome.

In other words, the Democrats in 2013 voted "present" en masse in order to force the Republicans to choose between either coercing some of their members to vote for a bill which they oppose on principle (thus embarrassing them) or letting a bill fail despite a majority of Republicans wanting it to pass (thus preventing it from passing). Either way, the Democrats win: The bill fails and the Republicans blame each other (ideal) or the bill passes while the most conservative members are seen to be compromising their principles for political gain (not great, but a good consolation prize). If they had instead all actually voted against it, then the Republicans could have voted however they wanted to and it still wouldn't have passed, but they could then blame the Democrats for its failure.

There is no way to derive any of this simply from looking at the vote totals of "104 for, 132 against, 171 voting present", however.

So, given that mass "present" votes like this are inseparable from their specific situation, the Green New Deal vote has to be looked at in context. The situation here is somewhat reversed from the 2013 one in the House, but there are common threads.

This article from Vox 1 says:

Democrats predominately voted “present” on the resolution as a means of calling out Republicans, who had set up this vote to highlight potential splits in the Democratic caucus and force lawmakers to splinter from a high-profile, progressive idea.

As the thinking goes, if only part of the Democratic caucus wound up backing the idea, Republicans could argue that it didn’t actually have enough support from the party. They could also suggest that 2020 Senate Democrats — all of whom have expressed support for the proposal — weren’t actually down to follow through, if they didn’t vote in favor of it. Additionally, the move was aimed at putting Democrats from more moderate states in a tough position, forcing them to choose between backing a popular liberal idea and potentially turning off some of their constituents.

In other words, McConnell attempted to force the Democrats to go on record as either voting against their own Green New Deal, thus embarrassing them, or voting for it, which would then mean that those Democrats could be portrayed as fully supporting everything in the GND, no matter how extreme. Instead, by almost every Democrat voting "present", they are "protesting" the vote and/or the manner in which it was being taken - they are not participating in what they have called a "sham" vote.

1 NB: I am intentionally choosing a left-biased source here, in order to get a quote from the Democratic perspective.

  • 1
    Since there are only 51 republicans, do the 6 democrats voting against the GND instead of voting present, give McConnell enough of a split to call this a win for his strategy?
    – Jontia
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 7:56
  • @Jontia - I haven't looked at the actual list of how people voted, but as long as none of them were co-signers of the bill (or had previously supported it), then there's nothing to shame them on. I think I read that they were all Democrats from Republican-leaning states, who would be expected to be more conservative than the rest of the caucus. But I don't have a source for that currently, so I'm not positive.
    – Bobson
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 15:55

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