Friday, February 19, 2010

One lousy vote

Today, the Kansas Senate debated a bill to abolish the death penalty in my fine state.  Though I had the day off, I stayed glued to my computer most of the day listening to the debate.  I could have had lunch with friends I don't normally see during the day, but I didn't.  I thought maybe, just maybe, we could muster the votes to pass the Senate.  I knew there would be a fight in the House and the Governor had made statements suggesting he wouldn't sign it, but still.  I had hope.

The debate started off well, with an eloquent and thorough argument in favor of abolition.  Then there was an attempt to table the bill by sending it back to committee.  Such an action would have made sure the bill never saw the light of day again.  That motion was defeated and so the debate went on.  A very pro-death penalty senator moved to amend the bill in such a way that it would have stripped the bill of its abolition language.  At this point, the debate hit full throttle.  Senators began to speak up forcefully on their insistence that justice could not be had without the death penalty.  Some insisted that there is a deterrent effect, finding meaning in statistics that simply don't have any.  Many made factually inaccurate claims about our own death row residents and their cases.  The rational side of me thought there is no way we can win this debate in Kansas, where people are so gung-ho to kill.  But I was starting to get hopeful.

Through it all, listening over the internet, it was impossible to get a sense of how the numbers would work out.  But we defeated the attempt to kill the bill in committee, so maybe we could defeat this attempt, too.  After some discussion, a vote was taken on the amendment.  20-20.  That was good news in the sense that the amendment failed to pass, but left a proponent of abolition fearing that no one would change a vote on the final bill.  The vote on the amendment, after all, essentially came down to a vote for or against abolition.

The debate then ended and the Senate moved on to other bills.  The debate on one bill went on for an agonizingly-long time, especially given that it was a dreadfully boring issue to this criminal defense attorney.  Finally, it came time to vote on the multiple bills that had been debated that day.  Trying to tally the votes during the roll call was next to impossible.  Half the Senators weren't close enough to a microphone to be heard and they were entering votes on multiple bills.  An inordinate number of Senators chose to explain their votes, which prolonged the wait for a final tally.  Nothing could be gleaned from those speaking up, either, because they were all votes I already knew. 

In the end, the vote was finally stated: 20-20.  The bill failed.  By one vote.  One lousy vote.  It feels like a kick in the gut.  I know I should look on the bright side: that we got half the Senate to vote yes.  I should remind myself that abolition doesn't happen overnight; it takes time to build support for the idea that there are better ways to approach crime and sentencing.  I should be optimistic that we got this many this year, so now we only need to find one more vote for next year.

But all I can think right now is we could have had it this year if we could have found that one more vote today.

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