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Lawmakers Turning Their Backs on Roll-Call Voting

South Carolina’s lawmakers so far this year are voting more anonymously compared to 2009, even after they changed their rules last year to increase roll-call voting.

And a Senate subcommittee appears poised to kill a bill that would require more recorded votes, despite the fact that half of the Senate’s 46 members have signed onto the bill, and even though the House unanimously passed an identical version.

Of 1,756 total votes cast by both the House and Senate through March 31, 251, or slightly more than 14 percent, were roll-call votes, according to analysis by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

That means that lawmakers are casting joint-voice votes about 86 percent of the time. In comparison, lawmakers voted anonymously 75 percent over the entire 2009 session, an earlier Policy Council study found.

Lawmakers tightened their voting rules in January 2009 following a first-ever in-depth study by the Policy Council that showed the General Assembly in 2008 cast roll-call votes on passed bills and joint resolutions only 5 percent of the time.

That analysis also found that South Carolina at the time had the nation’s weakest requirements for recorded voting.

"There would be nothing wrong with legislation – unless it’s unconstitutional – that would require roll-call votes for all substantive matters," John Crangle, director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, told The Nerve when contacted Wednesday.

Crangle said lawmakers often want to cast anonymous votes on controversial issues because "they’re afraid of retribution from their constituents."

But, he added, "When you balance that with public accountability and public knowledge, (roll-call voting) is a higher value."

The Policy Council’s latest analysis included recorded votes on bills, both second and third readings; various motions and amendments to bills; and joint resolutions. It did not include votes on congratulatory resolutions that did not impact legislation.

The much-higher vote totals in the House reflect that chamber’s votes on the budget, which it passed last month and is now in the Senate.

The Senate had a lower recorded-vote percentage (11.15 percent) than the House (15.97 percent). By comparison, the Senate and House roll-call rates for 2009 were 15.6 and 31.2 percent, respectively.

Martin Disputes Findings

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, told The Nerve on Tuesday that the Policy Council’s latest findings are misleading.

"You get into the 50-percent (recorded vote) range if you don’t include third readings," Martin said, explaining that most debate on bills is done on second reading, and that third-reading votes typically are routine.

Martin said senators are "trying to be diligent" in complying with rule changes last year that required more roll-call voting, adding, "I’ll talk to the (Senate) clerk today to make sure we’re complying."

House Rules Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson; House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston; and Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, did not respond to The Nerve’s written requests for comment on the Policy Council’s latest analysis.

Martin is chairman of a three-member Senate Judiciary subcommittee considering companion roll-call voting bills (S. 11, H. 3047). The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, unanimously passed the House last month, including a 104-0 roll-call vote on second reading.

Both bills would require roll-call votes for:


  • Each section of the budget bill on second reading.

  • Passage of any other bill or joint resolution on second reading.

  • Passage of any bill or joint resolution on third reading if amended.

  • Agreement by one chamber of the other chamber’s amendments.

  • Adoption of conference committee reports.


Martin said he opposes the bills, though 23 of his colleagues have signed onto the Senate version. Another member of the Judiciary subcommittee, Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, told The Nerve last month that the Senate bill would never come up for a vote in the subcommittee.

The third member of the subcommittee, Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, told The Nerve last week he wasn’t aware of the bill, and that he could not comment until he could review it.

Like Martin, neither Knotts nor Ford is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill. Martin pointed out that the full Judiciary Committee likely would not consider either version if at least two of the three subcommittee members opposed it.

That effectively would kill the bills, Martin said.

McConnell, the committee chairman, who also is not a co-sponsor of the Senate version, did not respond to written questions by The Nerve about his views on the bills.

'Make the Rule a Law'

The Senate bill’s sponsor, Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, told The Nerve this week that his Senate colleagues should pass his bill.

"He’s (Martin) chairman of the Rules Committee, so he thinks that rules trump it all," Peeler said. "But if you say the rule is strong, then what’s wrong with having the statute? Let’s have it twice."

Martin said the bill would be "unenforceable," contending that although the state Constitution allows each chamber to set its own voting rules, it doesn’t allow the Legislature to pass a law doing the same thing.

Martin also said the bill’s section-by-section roll-call approval requirement for the budget would be too time-consuming, noting, "It would take between 30 to 40 hours without any debate, and we basically have a week to take up the budget."

Unlike the House, the Senate doesn’t have an electronic board to record roll-call votes, which slows down the process.

"It’s a self-imposed handicap," Crangle said. "It’s easily remedied. There’s no excuse."

Martin said that since the Senate changed its rules in January 2009 to increase roll-call voting, he is aware of only one complaint that the rules weren’t followed. The Senate rules require recorded votes for:


  • The state budget as a whole.

  • Second reading of contested bills.

  • Second reading of bills authorizing expenditure of funds or with fiscal impact of more than $10,000.

  • Third reading of amended bills.

  • Conference committee reports.


The House rule changes require recorded votes for:

  • Each section of the state budget if one member requests it.

  • Second reading of contested bills.

  • Third reading of amended bills.

  • Conference committee reports.


Following is a breakdown of the votes so far this legislative session, according to the Policy Council analysis:

House

 

Total votes: 1,146

Total votes: 1,146

Voice votes: 963

Percentage of voice votes: 84.03

Recorded votes: 183

Percentage of recorded votes: 15.97

Senate

 

Total votes: 610

Total votes: 610

Voice votes: 542

Percentage of voice votes: 88.85

Recorded votes: 68

Percentage of recorded votes: 11.15

Totals

 

Total votes: 1,756

Total votes: 1,756

Voice votes: 1,505

Percentage of voice votes: 85.71

Recorded votes: 251

Percentage of recorded votes: 14.29

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.

General Assembly Transparency