One vote per lawmaker, per bill, seems reasonable to me

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I’ve written a lot about “not voting” over the years, that particularly cowardly legislative habit of “taking a walk” when controversial legislation comes up for a vote, rather than taking a stand and risk offending an interest group or constituents. It hasn’t gotten any better, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Diaz reminded us this weekend:

But not all legislators are eager to cast a yes or no vote, especially on the tough issues. In a practice that has been the focus of a series of Chronicle editorials since June 2002, many important bills were rejected when a potentially decisive number of Assembly members failed to vote.

For the nonvoters, "taking a walk" is the equivalent of voting "no," because passage requires a majority of all 80 Assembly members. There is a pattern to this walking: In the vast majority of cases, the bill involves something average Californians care about – often consumer or environmental protections – while powerful corporate interests stand in opposition. Legislators prefer to euphemistically refer to this practice of avoiding what they were elected to do – Take a stand! Make tough decisions! Vote! – as "laying off" a bill.

A variety of consumer protection bills died by not voting last month, including a bill by Senator Kuehl that would have stopped telecommunications companies from charging consumers to have unlisted phone numbers, and a bill by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma that would have barred HMOs from forcing patients to pay for medical services up front and then apply for reimbursement, rather than allowing physicians to bill the HMO directly.

The answer to the problem is easy: dock a lawmaker’s pay for every day they’re present for a vote but fail to do their job. (In fact, we wrote an initiative that would do just that.) You can read our study of past not-voting trends here.

In case not voting is so commonplace it’s old hat, the Chronicle teased out the details of another legislative voting practice that doesn’t get such frequent attention: “ghost voting.” This one finds members of the Assembly with the urge to vote so badly that they do it for absent colleagues too.

Although the practice of "ghost voting" in the state Assembly is usually harmless, experts say it is fraught with the potential for mischief, and at times ghost votes have decided the outcome of potentially far-reaching legislation.

In the most recent case to surface, eyewitnesses said that in May, Assemblyman Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, cast a ghost vote for Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley – opposite the way she would have voted. "I don’t recall it, but I don’t deny it, either," de Leon said.

… Ghost voting occurs when one Assembly member pushes a button on the desk of an absent member, electronically casting the vote. The practice is clearly against the Assembly’s long-standing written rule that states, "A member may not operate the voting switch of any other member."

Nevertheless, lawmakers often violate the rule, acknowledged Jon Waldie, the chief administrative officer for the Assembly Rules Committee. "It is not uncommon for somebody to be pressing somebody else’s button," he said. "It’s darn near a daily occurrence." Although it is forbidden, there is no explicit penalty for violators, he said.

The 40 members of the Senate all manage to vote without colleagues’ help. Arguments that the Assembly’s just too darn big to adopt the Senate’s old-fashioned voice vote don’t really cut it. The Assembly doesn’t have to give up electronic voting to enforce the rule that every legislator do their job and push the button themselves.

Eager Assembly members could even kill two birds with one stone and transfer all that extra voting energy to the bills they took a walk on instead.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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