Nerve Citizen Reporter Pushes for Recorded Legislative Panel Votes

November 5, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Voting BoardIn an effort to broaden government accountability and transparency, Nerve Citizen Reporter Don Rogers and the Greenville Tea Party are continuing their fight to get legislative votes recorded at the committee and subcommittee levels.

“If we’re going to have a successful republic, it’s absolutely essential the public know how representatives are voting in committees because that’s where laws are shaped,” Rogers, a Greenville resident and member of the Greenville Tea Party, said in a recent interview.

The Greenville Tea Party recently sent out emails and letters to state senators and representatives, requesting them to publicly state their position on recording votes at the committee and subcommittee levels. Legislators can simply reply “yes” or “no” in response, and additionally have the option of elaborating on their position.

The S.C. General Assembly passed a law last year requiring roll-call voting on second readings and amended third readings of bills on the floor of the two chambers, as well as on individual sections of the annual state budget bill on second readings. But the law doesn’t require recorded votes for legislative committee and subcommittee actions, where much of the work on legislation is done.

In 2008, The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, began the first statewide push for recorded votes following the organization’s release of an in-depth study showing that the Legislature that year cast roll-call votes on passed bills and joint resolutions only 5 percent of the time.

With the support of then-state Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, grassroots organizations including the Greenville Tea Party began to apply public pressure on the General Assembly. Haley would later make roll-call voting a signature issue of her gubernatorial campaign.

“One of the main reasons our state government was oppressive and corruptible was due to secrecy,” Rogers said. “This tendency for representatives to operate in secrecy is a natural human trait.

“The tendency is for governmental power to grow over time. The true goal of all government organizations is to protect their power.”

With this in mind, Rogers believes that each lawmaker should be asked individually to state his or her position on recorded votes at the committee and subcommittee levels. So far, the Greenville Tea Party has received a number of responses, but because the annual legislative session doesn’t begin until January, many lawmakers are not currently at their Columbia offices and likely have not received a letter yet, he said.

On May 31, Rogers, with the support of grassroots leaders and a number of legislators, announced an effort to have recorded votes at the committee and subcommittee levels. At the time, he said he and fellow Greenville Tea Party member Bill McShea had secured on-the-record voting pledges from 70 percent of the chairmen of key legislative committees.

Garnering the support of committee chairmen was a “necessary step in asking for rule changes in both the Senate and the House,” Rogers said in his most recent interview.

When the new legislative session opens in January, lawmakers will decide what chamber rule changes to adopt. Rogers said he is pushing for the latest recorded-vote initiative to be included in any rule revisions.

“I believe the majority would favor a rule requiring votes to be made public,” he said. “It’s just a matter of breaking tradition and changing the mindset on the proper relationship between elected representatives and the public.”

“We’re trying to change the relationship and culture that has permitted a centralization of power that is guarded by a culture of secrecy,” he continued.

The Center for Public Integrity, for example, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C., and several other groups recently ranked South Carolina as the worst state in the nation in terms of access to public information. The Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization in Virginia that grades government websites nationwide, gave the Palmetto State’s websites average to poor marks for transparency.

Rogers harbors no illusions of swift change, but says that recorded voting on committee and subcommittee levels would be a significant step in the right direction.

“The immediate result is there will be a motivation to vote more in line with the people rather than lobbyists’ interests,” he said.

“Many elected representatives regard their greatest threat to be informed voters,” he continued. “Some are committed to good government, while others are there on behalf of their own agendas.

“Any gains made in transparency in government will be transitory without continual public scrutiny. So, the struggle between authority and freedom continues.”

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.