Kudos to Maplight.org and the California First Amendment Coalition, who filed suit this week to force the state’s legislative counsel to release its voting record database.
Legislative votes on individual bills are posted online, but it’s almost impossible to get a full picture of the voting record of any individual lawmaker (or the legislature as a whole) because they refuse to provide the database of votes.
Maplight.org asked for the info for its website that exposes the nexus between campaign contributions and politicians’ votes. Consumer Watchdog wanted the exact same data four years ago, when we asked a group of USC Public Policy graduate students to analyze lawmakers "not-voting" records.
For lawmakers afraid to cross both their campaign contributors and their constituents a non-vote functions like a No but doesn’t leave that messy paper trail. It’s when politicians intentionally leave the room, or just stay silent, rather than do their jobs and vote. We’ve noticed the trend time and again on bills that would protect consumers, workers or the environment that die without actually being voted down.
The USC students’ award-winning study found that non-voting was a factor in the outcome of 2/3 of the failed bills in the 2003-2004 legislative session, and that non-voting was the deciding factor in 37.5% of those bills. Three of the worst non-voters in the 03-04 session lost primary races after opponents publicized their non-voting records. But getting the information to do the analysis almost doomed the study before it got off the ground. In order to analyze lawmakers' voting habits the researchers were forced to spend weeks manually entering voting data bill by bill for every lawmaker because the legislature refused to release its voting database electronically.
The lawsuit is on firm ground. The database already exists. The legislature’s lawyers can’t get out of complying with California’s Public Records Act just because they don’t want people to have information in a usable format. Let’s hope the court sees through their attempt to obscure the actions of the legislature from the public.