By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — When it comes to attendance, Illinois’ congressional delegation earns above-average marks.
But attendance and missed votes don’t tell the full story about a congressman’s performance, according to one Illinois political observer.
“You count what you can. But for the average voter who’s maybe not very engaged, they’re going to be looking for these kinds of cues that give them some sense of how effective somebody is,” said longtime Illinois political observer Kent Redfield. “Whether they take it seriously and, for better or worse, whether they miss a lot of roll calls are measures.”
All of Illinois’ seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — 18 in all after losing one in the redistricting process — are up for grabs in November.
Of the state’s 19 sitting U.S. representatives, only Democrats Bobby Rush of District 1 and Luis Gutierrez of District 4 have missed more than 10 percent of roll-call votes during their time in office, according to the latest figures from Govtrack.us, which tracks federal legislation and lawmaker votes in Congress.
Both have been in the U.S. House since 1993, and more than 13,000 votes were taken during that time. Rush missed 1,760 of them, and Gutierrez, 1,548.
Fourteen representatives missed between zero percent and 3 percent of their votes.
U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-District 14, who joined Congress in January 2011, has the best record, missing only four of 1,503 votes during his tenure.
U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-District 13, has been in office since 1999 and has the second-best record, missing only 68 of 9,679 votes.
The median for missed votes among congressional lawmakers is 2.4 percent, according to Govtrack.us.
Some candidates say they miss more mundane and procedural votes, because they are meeting with constituents and interest groups as well as advocating for particular issues and meeting with interest groups — all of which make them better representatives of those who elected them.
But a candidate’s voting record, especially missed votes on key legislation, can be damaging material for an opponent’s campaign ads, said Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
“It really can be political dynamite because it translates so easily into an appeal that the average voter can understand. ‘I’ve got a job. I’m supposed to do things. I’m supposed to be there. I’ve got work days, and I can’t just blow off work,’” he said.
“So when a congressman misses a lot of roll calls, it’s really easy to make the case that the congressman is skipping work and therefore is not paying attention to the basics. And if they don’t have the kind of character to show up for work, then how can you trust them on all of this other stuff. It fits very easily into a more extended narrative of whether they’re really up to the job.”
Rush, who has missed 13 percent of roll-call votes during his tenure, did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday through his spokeswoman.
Rush missed a large number of votes in 2008 when he was being treated for cancer.
That, Redfield noted, is an example of why voting records alone without context can cause confusion for voters.
Voters can consider the types of legislation the candidates helped pass, the perks the candidates brought home for the district, their leadership roles in sponsoring legislation — all of which help paint a more accurate picture of the job lawmakers are doing, Redfield said.
“If you can make the case that, ‘I make the important votes, and here are the other important things I’m doing,’ that may be sufficient,” he said. “It’s just that without any context, missing votes translates into not doing your job and not taking the job seriously. Without context that’s a very compelling negative argument.”