Complaints about Roll Call Voting Lame as Ever

October 3, 2014

Inside Insight

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roll call votingROLL CALL VOTING MAKES ONE SENATOR FEEL LIKE A DOG
AND KEEPS HIM FROM LOBBYISTS. FANTASTIC!

In 2008, research by the South Carolina Policy Council showed that state lawmakers recorded their votes, on average, 5 percent of the time. The House and Senate tried to appease citizens in 2009 by adopting rules in their respective chamber to “require” roll call votes, but those rules were comically weak; the issue didn’t go away.

During the intense fight that followed – lawmakers wanted to continue casting unrecorded voice votes, citizens wanted all those votes recorded – we heard every excuse possible to oppose roll call voting: it’s unconstitutional, it costs too much, it’s a waste of time. The excuses were poor then and they’re poor now. Yet at least one state senator has been dusting off those old excuses and using them.

Sen. Glenn Reese (D- Spartanburg) recently told The State that the necessity of recording senators’ votes is hurting their chances of passing a fuel tax increase. “The purpose [of roll-call voting] was to expose,” he remarked, “but what it did was kill legislation.”

In other words, roll-call voting has made public officials accountable for their votes – and some of them don’t like it!

They’d much prefer, as Sen. Reese put it to the Greenville News, “the Baptist way of ‘all in favor, the ayes have it.’” Voice votes have decided many significant issues in the past – the decision to set a cigarette tax increase for special order in the Senate, for example, and the decision to create the I-85 and I-95 Corridor Authority. An even more recent instance: House members actually objected to recording their votes on the chamber’s electronic voting board in the race for the Supreme Court’s top judgeship.

Nor is Sen. Reese alone. Sen. Danny Verdin (R-Laurens) agrees: “I was one of the few who said ‘no’ on the whole nonsense,” Sen. Verdin told the Greenville News, “and had my head handed to me on a platter by all the folks.”

To Sen. Reese, the reform was objectionable because it made his life inconvenient – so inconvenient, in fact, that he often feels like “a dog on a chain.” He complains that the process of calling roll prevents lawmakers from leaving the chamber to (as Greenville News reporter Tim Smith summarizes Sen. Reese’s words) “talk with lobbyists, constituents, or others in the lobby.”

So roll-call voting keeps lawmakers from enjoying more face-time with lobbyists? I had not thought of that point, but it’s one of the best arguments for mandatory roll-call voting I have ever heard.

But seriously – here’s a thought. How about lawmakers come prepared to debate legislation before session convenes each day? If our legislators haven’t read the legislation and researched the issue on which they are expected to vote, maybe they should abstain.

Sen. Reese also complains that roll-call voting has slowed down the process of taking up bills. In the senate, each time a recorded vote is taken, the clerk calls each member’s name and that member vocalizes his or her vote. Some members don’t vote when their name is called – usually a tactical move to see how other members are voting before casting their own – requiring the clerk to call the roll more than once. What slows things down, then, isn’t roll-call voting but the wishy-washy, finger-to-the-wind attitude many members have when casting votes.

Of course, if time-wasting were really the concern, the Senate could install an electronic voting board like the House’s. The chamber certainly has the money to install one, having an extra $7 million carried over from last year. Somehow I doubt time-wasting is really a concern. After all, senators still find time to pass ridiculous and totally insignificant bills and resolutions designating, for example, state symbols. Last year, the Senate alone spent nearly two months considering a bill to make the Columbian Mammoth the official State Fossil.

If roll-call voting doesn’t slow the Senate down, it does stop members from casting ill-advised votes. At the conclusion of this year’s session, lawmakers tried to give themselves a $12,000 pay raise through a budget proviso. When citizens figured out what was happening and lawmakers realized their vote on the governor’s veto of the provision would be watched closely, senators began reversing their votes. The attempt to override Gov. Haley’s veto failed. So thanks to roll call voting, lawmakers won’t get their pay hike, and taxpayers won’t have to shell out the $6.6 to $38.9 million the increase would have added to retirement benefits and administrative costs.

So let’s see. Mandatory roll-call voting may kill a gas tax increase, and definitely killed a hefty pay raise for legislators. Thank goodness for – to use Sen. Verdin’s term – “all the folks.”