In legislative bodies, a voice vote is a decision-making process in which those present make their opinions known orally as a group, rather than standing or dividing to be counted. This means that there is no formal record of who voted in support and voted against the measure under consideration. Voice votes are often used in small legislative bodies, but they also appear at the highest levels of government.
When a voice vote is taken, the presiding officer says “all in favor,” and those in favor respond with “yeas” or “ayes.” Next, the presiding officer asks “all opposed,” and those opposed say “nay.” Legislators may also respond with “present,” which is viewed as an abstaining vote. The outcome of the vote is at the discretion of the presiding officer; if he or she thinks one side was noticeably in the majority, the result will be announced. Those who disagree with the judgment of the presiding officer may request a division, a more formal type of vote in which people are actually counted to determine the outcome of the vote.
There are a number of reasons to use a voice vote. Sometimes, a voice vote will be called for when a measure is not very controversial, because it's faster than a division. Small legislative bodies such as city councils may also use the voice vote system, because there are only a few members, and it's easy to tell which side has the most votes.
Sometimes, a voice vote will also be used in the case of a measure which is more controversial, because legislators appreciate the lack of a formal record which would tell people how they voted; in a sense, the voice vote acts as a political cover, allowing legislators to vote with their beliefs because they are less afraid of reprisals.
The “yeas” and “nays” of a voice vote are familiar to many people who are interested in the political process. Many student government groups also use the voice vote system to get members more engaged in the process of making decisions, and government classes which hold mock legislative sessions also tend to use the voice vote process in preference to written or anonymous voting. Political conventions may also use voice votes, usually in a rolling roll call which goes state by state, although delegates may move for a “vote by acclaim,” in which the entire convention is asked to vote as one.