System allows state legislators to help out their neighbors when an issue needs a vote
by Tim Lockette
Dec 15, 2013 | 3854 views |  0 comments | 51 51 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A detail from an Associated Press photo taken May 9 of this year shows a few legislators' desks at the Statehouse in Montgomery. In the top right corner of each desk is an array of buttons used in the legislative voting process.
A detail from an Associated Press photo taken May 9 of this year shows a few legislators' desks at the Statehouse in Montgomery. In the top right corner of each desk is an array of buttons used in the legislative voting process.
MONTGOMERY — State Rep. Patricia Todd wasn't even in the room when she cast the vote that landed her, temporarily, on the wrong side of history.

It was 2007, and the Alabama House of Representatives was about to vote on a resolution apologizing for slavery. Few doubted where Todd, a white Democrat representing majority-black Birmingham, stood on the matter.

But as a key vote approached, she was called away to handle a matter in the Senate, two floors up from the House chamber. Leaving her desk, she asked a fellow lawmaker to enter "yes" on her voting machine when the resolution came up.

That colleague pressed the wrong button. "No" to apologizing for hundreds of years of involuntary servitude.

"It was just an accident," Todd said last week. "He just reached back to my desk and pressed the wrong button."

Todd's vote was quickly corrected in the House journal, and the resolution passed 46-41. But the episode taught her to be wary of the voting-by-proxy that has become a tradition in the lower house of the Alabama Legislature. House members have been known to "vote" on matters before the House while they were hundreds or thousands of miles away. Indeed, leaving one's vote in the hands of another lawmaker is an everyday occurrence.

"That happens quite regularly," said Rep. Richard Laird, I-Roanoke. "It's not a problem, if you've got someone you can trust, like your seatmate, to vote for you."

In the 35-member Alabama Senate, matters are decided by voice vote. Crucial votes are done by roll call, with each senator calling out a response.

The House, with 105 members, is noisier and more chaotic. To cut through the clutter, the House long ago adopted an electronic voting system. At each member's desk is a voting machine that allows that member to record a vote. It typically takes only about a minute to hold a vote, with the results displayed on an electronic screen above the speaker's podium.

Lawmakers quickly learned that they didn't have to be in the chamber, or even in the Statehouse, to cast a vote. Political scientist and former House member Glen Browder said most House members regard a proxy vote as not very different from shouting across the chamber to ask someone to vote on their machines — something that happens often. Though there are absentee votes that House members frown on. Brief absences from the chamber are considered OK by most House members. Day-long breaks, not so much.

“It’s a matter of degree,” said Browder, an emeritus professor of political science at Jacksonville State University.

Most lawmakers are torn between defending the practice and condemning it. Every member of Calhoun County’s House delegation has acknowledged, to The Star, that they’ve left their vote in the the hands of another House member, at least temporarily. Some say it’s impossible to avoid getting up to leave — given the need to go to the bathroom, talk to the press, attend committee meetings or meet with constituents.

“If I’ve got a school group that’s come out to see me, and I don’t step out to meet them, what does that say about me?” said Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford.

Still, some in the House say it’s a privilege that is too often abused.

"Some people will get up and vote all the machines down the row," Todd said.

Laird, the Roanoke representative, said abuses are rare. But he has been burned by the system. In 2008, Laird left on an industry recruiting trip to Asia. While he was gone, someone used his machine to vote in favor of an amendment to remove the sales tax on groceries — something Laird opposed. The same thing happened to Rep. Duwayne Bridges, R-Valley, who was traveling with Laird. Republican leaders said then-Rep. Randy Hinshaw, D-Meridianville, voted those machines. According to an Associated Press account from the time, Hinshaw said he’d voted other members’ machines, but he didn’t say whose machines he’d voted on.

"We had words, both publicly and privately," Laird said. Attempts to reach Hinshaw for comment were unsuccessful.

When voting controversies do erupt, they sometimes descend into matters of he-said, she-said.

Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery, told The Star last week that former Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, sat in Hubbard’s seat and cast several votes at one point during the 2013 session. Hubbard also accused Love — who was expected to be his opponent in the race for a newly-redrawn House district — of disabling his “speak light,” a light on the desk that indicates when a House member wishes to speak.

“That is not true. I never touched his machine,” Love said. Love said he did sit in Hubbard’s chair, talking to Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, while Hubbard was away.

England, too, said Love never touched Hubbard’s machine. And England said he was the one who dismantled Hubbard’s light, as a prank on a fellow Democrat.

“It did not impact anything,” he said.

Less hotly debated are incidents when a House member, acting in good faith, mistakenly votes against the wishes of a colleague.

Hurst said he has had colleagues vote against his wishes a couple of times because they guessed at what his position would be — and guessed wrong. That’s uncommon, he said.

“At lot of these bills are discussed at length before a vote,” he said. “You know how your seatmate votes most of the time.”

Some House members do acknowledge voting multiple machines. Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said that on local bills, she will vote on her neighbors’ machines to record their absence.

“If it’s a local bill, and they’re not there, I’ll abstain them,” she said.

Lawmakers who leave typically give instructions to the people voting on their behalf, said Jeff Woodard, clerk of the House.

House Rule 32 requires House members to cast their own votes. Woodard said the rule is observed only when a member of the house explicitly asks for it to be upheld. That doesn't happen often.

"I really don't know how often Rule 32 is invoked," he said. "Probably less than 10 percent of the time."

Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, said she invoked Rule 32 in the House's final vote on the Alabama Accountability Act, one of the most hotly debated bills of the 2013 session. On the morning of Feb. 28, the bill was known as the School Flexibility Act, a measure that was intended to allow local schools to opt out of some state rules. When the bill returned from conference committee late in the evening of Feb. 28, it had tripled in length and included a plan to give tax credits to parents who pull their children out of "failing" schools.

"It came out of conference committee so fast, I thought there's no way someone could know how another person would vote on this," Nordgren said.

House records show 77 lawmakers participating in the final House vote on the Accountability Act. Ninety-two people voted on a procedural vote on the bill earlier the same day. But there's no clear way to tell who was really present for the earlier vote, and who was delegating the vote to someone else.

"I was in the building, but I was not in the chamber," said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, who missed the final vote."The conference version came at us so fast, I don't think anybody was ready."

Nordgren's Rule 32 call isn't recorded in the House journal, but House staff say they don't make a record of Rule 32 calls unless a member explicitly asks them to.

That makes it difficult to determine who was actually present in the House during the March 22, 2011, debate on House Bill 19 — a bill that requires all Alabama voters to show photo ID at the polls on Election Day. The bill passed 64-31, along party lines. The House journal has no record of Rule 32 being invoked in the debate.

House members say it's rare for either side to invoke Rule 32 when the vote is so lopsided.

"It wouldn't have mattered, because the Republican supermajority knew what they wanted to do," Boyd said.

When House members do step out of the chamber, party leaders may be the ones who benefit most. Boyd said that when she's away, she'll give a colleague instructions on how she intends to vote on certain key items.

"If anything comes up that's unexpected, I ask them to vote with the (Democratic) caucus," she said.

Back in 2010, Rep. K.L. Brown left Montgomery for two days of the legislative session to attend a convention. A few months later, he told The Star that Republican House leaders had told him they'd vote his machine for him.

Members who leave the House for a full day, or longer, are expected to ask that their machines be locked down to prevent voting. Not everyone does that, Woodard said.

One member who has complied is Rep. Joe Mitchell, D-Mobile, who sat out the entire 2013 session of the Legislature. Woodard said Mitchell calls nearly every day of the session to ask that his machine be locked down.

"That's the way you should do it," Woodard said.

Mitchell said he believes House members weren’t adequately notified of a special session of the Legislature in 2012. Since that incident, he said, he has felt he can better serve his constituents by remaining in the district.

“I could go up there and talk a blue streak, but it wouldn’t change the result,” he said.

Mitchell said that when he was attending the session, he would expressly ask colleagues not to vote his machine if he stepped away. But he, too, acknowledged voting on behalf of others. And he said he didn’t protest, years ago, when a House member with a serious illness cast a vote without being in the chamber.

“If you dig your heels in the sand on this, at some point it becomes inhumane,” he said.

Few in the House want to see Rule 32 enforced all the time. Todd said she would like to see House rules tightened to make sure lawmakers’ machines are locked when they’re gone for an entire day.

“To me, it’s about the validity of the process,” she said. “The way we do it now is undemocratic.”

She has about a year to make her case. House rules are typically drawn up at the beginning of a four-year term, and all House members are up for re-election in 2014.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, isn’t so sure there’s a need for change. In an email to The Star, Hubbard’s spokeswoman Rachel Adams said the practice hasn’t been a significant problem in the House.

“Members need the flexibility to meet with their constituents while the House is in session and still have the ability to represent their district by vote,” she wrote. “Since Republicans have been in the leadership, this has not been an issue.”

Browder, the political scientist, said voting by absent members has rarely swayed an important vote.

“I don’t see it as a major miscarriage of democratic justice,” he said.

But Todd said her constituents are stunned when she tells them how the process actually works.

“They just can’t believe it,” she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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