Some States Allow Lawmakers to Switch Votes on Previous Legislation

Lawmakers in California's Assembly will hit the campaign trail this year, touting their votes on all manner of bills. Can we believe them? What they say may not be a true reflection of the stand they took when the bill was being debated.
by | March 14, 2012

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Lawmakers in California's Assembly will hit the campaign trail this year, touting their votes on all manner of bills. Can we believe them? What they say may not be a true reflection of the stand they took when the bill was being debated.

California is one of at least 10 states in which some lawmakers can change their votes after a bill has passed or failed.

While the original outcome of the bill isn't altered, the practice gives lawmakers a chance to change their minds, grab some political cover or varnish their official record when they were afraid or unwilling to take a stand on legislation before a vote.

In January and February, Assembly members used the option more than 400 times, an Associated Press review found.

In Ohio, lawmakers became so concerned about the number of altered votes that they changed their rules to make it more difficult. In North Carolina, the House speaker set a new policy after a colleague changed his vote two weeks after a bill passed.

"They can be accused of flip-flopping and not making up their minds," said North Carolina Republican state Sen. Tom Apodaca, chairman of the rules committee. "You put yourself at risk."

Some lawmakers in California who are among the most prolific users defended the practice. They said they often don't have adequate time to read legislation before voting or use the rule as a tactic to work with other lawmakers.

Lawmakers sometimes hold out to see if a bill passes or fails because they are angry at a colleague or want to see if they actually vote for their bill before voting on the colleague's legislation, Democratic Assemblyman Tony Mendoza of Artesia said.

"Sometimes it's very political," he said.

In California, Assembly members frequently add their vote to bills that were taken up while they were not on the floor or change their votes after the final tally has been announced in the chamber.

The vote-switching and vote-adding is allowed only in the 80-member state Assembly, and it cannot change whether a bill passes or fails. The 40-member Senate allows only the Democratic and Republican leaders to add their votes, but it is seldom used.

The AP review found lawmakers switched their votes or added their name after the total vote was read aloud at least 419 times since January. The vast majority were Assembly members who added their votes after a bill had passed or failed.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said both practices let lawmakers off the hook from making difficult decisions when they matter. He said lawmakers who switch votes are either doing so out of stupidity because they did not understand the legislation or to deceive their constituents.

Those who add votes "might as well be absent," Scheer said. "Your vote is superfluous. It's worse than superfluous, because you're only adding it when it's safe, and you're wasting your constituents' time."

Mendoza has added his vote to bills after they had passed or failed 17 times this year, the sixth-highest number in the Assembly. He said he often waits to add votes because lawmakers are making revisions until the last minute.

"Some bills, I don't even want to vote on. I don't like them," Mendoza said. "Sometimes you don't feel good about it, but the author wants you to add on to it because it makes it look good when it goes to the Senate side."

While lawmakers in the Assembly generally accept the use of the rule, legislators in at least nine other states that allow vote-changes or -adds do not appear to employ it so liberally. Most of the other legislative houses allow lawmakers time to change their votes or delay votes before the final tally is announced, but few lawmakers make changes after the vote is recorded.

One exception is North Carolina, where lawmakers in the Legislature can change their recorded votes after the fact.

In the Senate, they must do so on the same legislative day. In the House, there is no time restriction written into the chamber's operating rules. Last year, members changed their votes more than 400 times, often to account for what they said were genuine mistakes.

Last June, Republican Speaker Pro Tempore Dale Folwell raised eyebrows when he asked to change his vote from yes to no on a contentious consumer finance bill two weeks after it passed. Folwell said he changed his mind on the bill's contents.

Soon after, Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis set a policy allowing vote changes within 24 hours of the original vote in "an effort to protect the sanctity of the voting process," spokesman Jordan Shaw said.

When Florida lawmakers change votes, it's usually not for political or tactical reasons because Republicans have overwhelming majorities in both chambers, Democratic Rep. Alan Williams said. More often, it's due to confusion, particularly in the last hectic days of a session when hundreds of bills are voted on.

On the second-to-last day of this year's session, Williams cast a yea vote after the 110-8 roll call on a $371,851 claims bill for the children of a man who died when a Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy slammed into his car after falling asleep at the wheel. Williams then changed his vote to nay before changing it back to yea.

"I stepped off the floor," Williams recalled. "I didn't know what was going on."

The Ohio House has prohibited a practice similar to that in California, where representatives are allowed to change their votes by the end of the day's business. The practice was changed about 10 years ago after it became so widespread that lawmakers and the media frequently were unsure about the vote totals, former House Clerk Laura Clemens said.

"That was making everybody confused," said Clemens, who served in the clerk's office from 1995 until earlier this year.

"It was also being used, quite frankly, rather strategically," she said. "So people would give a vote, thinking they'll vote yes. But when they realized they didn't really need to, then they could change their vote."

Since the crackdown, the House must vote to reconsider the entire bill for lawmakers to change their position, something that is seldom done.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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