Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Does It Matter Who Pushes A Legislator's Voting Button?

WTHR is running teaser ads promoting an investigative piece Bob Segall is planning to run Thursday night at 11:00 p.m. showing members of the House of Representatives pushing the electronic voting button of their seatmates when they are not sitting at their desks. In order for the member's voting button to be activated, he or she has to answer the roll call taken at the beginning of each session day. Often, lawmakers may step outside of the House chambers briefly to speak to a lobbyist or a constituent, or to take a restroom break or grab some food or drink from a vending machine. It is not an uncommon practice for a seatmate to cover for one of his or her colleagues if the lawmaker has asked them to do so, although the House rules clearly require each member to cast his or her own vote. I have not seen this practice being carried out in the more staid Senate.

I have first-hand experience with this issue from my experience working for the Illinois House of Representatives for six years from 1984-90. For three of those years, I served as floor manager for House Republican Leader Lee A. Daniels. In Illinois, it was a common practice for the legislative leaders to spend most of the time while the legislature is in session in their offices meeting with staff, lobbyists and other legislators. As part of my job, I was required to physically cast Daniels' vote for him at his direction. He had a monitor on his desk which allowed him to view each vote I cast in his absence. If he questioned the vote, he could immediately reach me by telephone and ask me to change the vote. During a three-year period, I cast 99% of the thousands of votes he was recorded as voting. The Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan, also had a person designated to cast his vote for him when he was not present on the floor.

The problem I had as a staffer came from the requests I received from other legislators. At times, I would be required to cast as many as seven or eight votes for various legislators who temporarily stepped outside the House chambers but who wanted to have their vote cast while they were absent. Dozens of State House reporters sitting in a nearby press box witnessed me doing this and never raised questions about the practice. There was a bit of an understanding with the media that this was the way business was done. A few years earlier, there had been a brief scandal when a reporter did a story showing House pages casting votes for members and another member shoving a paper clip in his "Yes" voting button, which had the effect of casting his vote for him even in his absence. That former member is now a U.S. Representative from my old district in Illinois, Timothy Johnson. There were many other far more interesting and scandalous stories about him, but I digress.

Segall's reporting is not in the least bit original. Reporters have done similar stories in other state capitols in recent years. A CBS affiliate in Texas had the same story on the Texas House of Representatives a couple of years ago. Generally speaking, if a really important vote is being taken, all of the members are present unless they are excused for illness or other personal reasons. I'm not bothered a whole lot by this practice as long as the seatmate is acting at the direction of the absent lawmaker, is voting according to his or her wishes and is doing so during the lawmaker's temporary absence. I would add that I don't think it's appropriate for a lawmaker to step out to watch a game or go see a movie and expect his seatmate to cast his votes during the absence. I found this practice more widespread when I worked in Illinois than during the five-year period I lobbied the Indiana legislature.


Paul K. Ogden said...

Gary, I worked at the Indiana State Senate in the 1980s. This story doesn't really bother me at all. Now if a legislator were actually not in the building and votes were being cast for him or her, I'd have a problem with that. But people are busy. So what if they step out for a second and someone casts a vote for him or her? Not a big issue.

Like you, I'd draw the line when it comes to people not on the legislator's staff casting votes for him or her. When that starts happening on a regular basis that's a problem.

I think this is a matter easily resolved with some common sense guidelines.

Downtown Indy said...

Then why isn't it OK for me to cast my neighbor's vote in an election?

No, I don't think it's proper thing to have a staffer or the guy in the next chair over casting votes because you step out for a minute. That IS their job, afterall. Bend one 'little' rule and then what, another and another?

Nope - I'm against this one 100%.

Paul K. Ogden said...

DI, in a four year election cycle, you have six elections where a person casts a vote. When you're voting in a legislative body, you literally cast hundreds of votes. A vote cast at the ballot is a private matter. A vote cast in the General Assembly is not priate at all. You're comparing apples and oranges.

Diana Vice said...

I DO have a problem with this, especially if a large group of legislators take advantage of the questionable practice. We elect legislators to cast votes on our behalf. Children spend much more time in the classroom, and they aren't allowed to get up out of their seats during test time or instructional time. Yes, they may on occasion excuse themselves to go to the restroom, but they can't simply get up to get a candy bar or a soda pop. Likewise, the real world doesn't operate like this either. Employees can't come and go as they please and expect their co-workers to do their jobs while they're away. These votes are legally cast, and to have even a shadow of doubt placed over a single vote begs for trouble.

Don Sherfick said...

While I'm totally sympathetic with Paul's position that there are hundreds of legislative votes versus a handfull at the polls, I can't agree with his characterizing DI as "comparing apples and oranges". It would seem that one could cast his neighbor's vote at the polls if the law expressly authorized some kind of "power of attorney" situation. Absent that, no vicarious exercise. Perhaps that concept, at least acknowledged in legislative rules, if not the law itself, might at least serve to keep the practice above board.

jabberdoodle said...

What are the House of Representatives rules of procedure on this type of proxy voting?

Gary R. Welsh said...

I don't know what the current rules say, but I know the House rules allowed proxy voting in committees only at one time.

Gary R. Welsh said...

I should add that proxy voting would never be allowed by rule for votes in the full House. There was an issue a few years ago about an ill legislator being allowed to cast a vote remotely from his home. As I recall, he was on the phone and communicated his vote, which was recorded.

POPA said...

I have a problem with this practice because it lessens public accountability. What keeps a legislator from asking a guy to vote for him all day while he's playing golf or having a long lunch with lobbyists?

I say give the legislators buzzers like at Applebees and signal them when it's time to vote. If they are really in the hall, they can tell whoever they're talking with that I have to vote, run in and push a button, and come back outside.

In addition, though I admit this example might be extreme, it wouldn't surprise me to one day see a legislator saying, "I told so-and-so to vote 'Aye,' but he mistakenly voted 'Nay.' The vote cast was not what I intended, nor is it consistent with my lifetime of working for (blah, blah, blah)."

I could actually envision a vote blowing up on a member so much during a campaign, that he'd have a better chance of surviving telling his constituents that he used poor judgment to let someone else press a button for him than saying he used poor judgment on the vote itself.

And if you have somebody with an interest in staying in the majority who is in a clearly safe district, he or she could play the fall guy/gal. Imagine two people at a press conference. The culprit says, "I feel so terrible. Not that I cast the vote. Everybody does this occasionally. But he told me Aye, and I just pressed the wrong button. I hope the voters of his district do not take it out on him for my obvious mistake. We ALL ask others to vote for us. I just got it wrong. So-and-so has been a devoted fighter for (blah, blah, blah) not only publicly but behind closed doors in the caucus."

Tell me this has would never happen with the pressure of, say, an election before redistricting.

Katie said...

Isn’t the point of a floor speaker to persuade or inform those who would vote otherwise. Without being present to listen to the opposing point of view how can that process play out if legislators aren’t present during that deliberation. Should they be allowed to dismiss listening to each other before they vote because they’re having a snack attack or because an (opposing) lobbyist wants to chat! I don’t think so; there is nothing worse than having a legislator with an uninformed predetermined voting practice.