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House vote changes produce few, incomplete records

2006 session saw 500 change requests

By Ginger Gibson

Friday, December 8, 2006

The Louisiana House of Representatives tried in 2005 to move state elections to the same year as national elections.

After the final vote closed, five representatives retroactively changed their votes.

But more than a year later, there’s no record of how they originally voted or if they were present for the vote at all.

The journals, the minutes of the session, were revised to reflect the changes the representatives requested.

The vote record added to the Legislature’s Web site was also altered to reflect the changes.

And a year after the session, the Clerk’s Office has trashed the printout from the original vote.

A total of 145 changes to votes in the 2005 regular session were recorded in the House daily journals. By practice, members can change their vote from the minute the results are announced until the last day of the session.

House Clerk Alfred Speer estimated representatives made 500 vote changes during the 2006 regular session.

As members of Legislature roll back into Baton Rouge today and fill the halls of the state Capitol, they are beginning the Second 2006 Extraordinary Legislative Session.

And while vote changing occurs less frequently in special sessions, like this month’s 10- day surplus spending stint, the topic of vote changing was raised in October at a House and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting.

Speer told the committee that vote changing has become more frequent in recent years – a trend he says is a result of vote records being made available to the public online.

Some representatives said members change their votes because they miss the pollingperiod while busy discussing legislation in the lobby, on the Senate floor or with constituents. Others say votes get changed because members learn more about legislation after the vote is taken, citing misleading information from other legislators, the volume of bills and the speed at which legislation is considered.

While some say the votes get reworked to further political ends, others say the switch is to ensure that constituents’ views are best represented.

How Changes Happen

Representatives can change a vote three ways.

A representative can change his vote before the vote is printed, the same day the vote is taken or later in the session. Two methods require a suspension of the rules because the House rules do not officially allow for changing votes.

If the request is made the same day, Speer announces to the House that a change has been requested and Speaker Joe Salter, D-Florien, asks for objections.

Rule suspensions are announced to the floor and members may object. If an objection is made, the full House must approve the suspension with a two-thirds majority.

When a representative changes his vote in the few minutes after the decision is announced and before the results are printed from the electronic voting machine, it does not require a suspension of the rules, so no announcement is made, and the change request is not recorded in the journals.

The final results as altered are entered in the journal and added to the legislative Web site.

If a member decides to change his vote later in the day or on another day in the session, a suspension of the rules is required.

The suspension of rules is recorded in the journals immediately after the vote ends. An example from the May 27, 2004, journal reads, “On motion of Rep. Erdey, and under a suspension of the rules, the above roll call was corrected to reflect him as voting yea.”

All records of the vote in the journal and on the Web site are corrected to reflect the change.

If the request is made on a later day, Speer announces to the floor that a change has been requested at the beginning of the meeting. If no one objects, the journal of the day the change is requested has an entry about the suspension.

One such instance from the June 7, 2004, journal reads, “On motion of Rep. Kennard, and under a suspension of the rules, the Journal of May 19, 2004, was corrected to reflect

him as voting yea on final passage of House Bill No. 420.”

The vote results in the journal from the day the vote was taken are altered to reflect the requested change. The Web site’s vote records are also changed.

Jim Brandt, president of the governmental watchdog group Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said vote changing practices need to be reformed.

“We would like to see them go the way the Senate does, record the vote and that’s it,” Brandt said. “Trying to deceive or not fully informing the public is not in the spirit of open and transparent government.”

Rep. Billy Wayne Montgomery, R-Haughton, who sits on the House and Governmental Affairs Committee and has been in the House for 19 years, said he would support House rules that would eliminate vote changing.

“When you vote, you ought to live with how you vote,” he said. “If they wouldn’t change, so they could say they vote both ways. They’re not helping [constituents or government] by being deceiving and misleading.”

Montgomery said he thinks the practice of changing votes allows members to take the original printout and the changed journals and tell constituents they voted both ways.

“I think it’s deceiving the public,” he said. “And I just don’t think we ought to do that.”

Rep. Pete Schneider, R-Slidell, said he thinks there are representatives who could use vote changes to misconstrue vote records.

“I do not do that at all,” he said. “I think people have done that and can still do it, I have watched that happen on the Senate floor and on the House floor. I don’t condone people doing that. The media knows, the staff knows and the Legislature knows, and if there are constituents that are watching it they know too, it’s no secret what people are trying to do. I think it’s deplorable.”

Getting original votes

While the journals contain notations that a vote was changed and what it was changed to, there is no description of what the original vote was. It can not be determined whether the member originally voted yes, no or was absent.

The printout contains results “with a line drawn from where they were to where they want to be,” Speer said.

Speer said the printout made from the voting machines reflects which buttons the member originally pressed, except for members who change their vote in the few minutes after the results are announced and before the page is printed.

When The Daily Reveille requested printouts from 13 votes from the past three years, Speer said only records from votes held in the 2006 sessions are available.

Speer said the printouts from the voting machines that are older than a year are not kept by the Clerk’s Office.

“The next time they’re in session, they could not make a motion to change a vote that took place in the regular session,” Speer said.

Brandt said the inability to access government records should be changed.

“I don’t see any reason why they should not maintain them for longer than a one-year period of time,” Brandt said. “I wasn’t aware that was the practice, and it’s something we should address.”

Putting requests in writing

Speer told the House and Governmental Affairs Committee in October that he wanted to implement a procedure to put vote changes in writing. Speer said the committee was not required to take any action, but he was only informing the committee of the procedure change.

He told the committee that because the Clerk’s Office was receiving a larger number of requests to change than in the past, he was concerned about how the requests were being handled.

Speer said the Clerk’s Office sometimes receives requests on slips of paper with no name, and someone would have to determine who it belonged to. Other times, the Clerk’s Office would have two names on a sheet from one person and would have to find the second person.

Representatives also asked to change the vote verbally. Speer said in the 2006 regular session a member contended after the session was over that he had asked to change his vote, but it had never been changed. By the time he noticed, the session was over, and it was too late.

But Speer said he and others in the Clerk’s Office did not recall being asked to change the vote.

“We won’t get into this embarrassment of ‘I wanted my vote changed, and you didn’t do it,'” Speer said.

Speer told the committee he wanted to create a form for members to fill out that would have their name, which bill they were changing their vote on and what they wanted their vote to be.

Before Speer finished presenting his proposals regarding voting to the committee, Rep. Emile “Peppi” Bruneau, R-New Orleans, asked Speer whether the form would be subject under law to request by the public.

“I think we’re about to drown ourselves in a sea of paper work,” Bruneau said.

Bruneau said members should check to see whether votes they requested to be changed were actually changed so the Clerk’s Office did not need to keep records for that reason.

“I think that’s a public record Mr. Speer,” Bruneau said. “And I think you will have to save it for the three years and all that, and it would be subject to inspect it.”

Bruneau told the committee the record could be used by political opponents during elections to target members and try to “show how [members] lied.”

“There’s two sides to every story, and as far as I’m concerned if that’s the way you all want to do… that’s OK with me, but I don’t see anything wrong with the situation we have now,” Bruneau said.

Speer told Bruneau and the committee he would not change any other part of the process and would only “cover” him and members of his office.

“You’ve done alright in the last 30 years Mr. Speer,” Bruneau said. “I just don’t see any reason to change a situation that I feel works OK.”

Bruneau told the committee he would caution members at creating more public records and “guaranteed” that members of the media would request the documents after the session was over.

“Until that journal is adopted the next day, I think you have a legal right to change your vote,” Bruneau said.

Other members of the committee asked Speer about the frequency of vote changing and his motives for implementing a new policy.

Speer told the members the number of requests had increased in recent sessions, a change he attributed to the practice of placing all vote results on the Internet. He also said the reason he was asking for the change was to make the process easier and more organized for his office.

Speer told The Daily Reveille that after hearing the response from the committee meeting, he would not implement a policy of having members make vote change requests in writing.

Rep. M.J. “Mert” Smiley, R-Port Vincent, a member of the House and Governmental

Affairs Committee, said he “quizzed” Speer at the October meeting. He asked about creating a public record and the number of changes on the floor.

Smiley later told The Daily Reveille he would support a rules change creating a form to change votes.

“I and a few of the other members felt that if it would have been brought as a bill or a rules change request we would have voted for it,” Smiley said.

Smiley said he and Bruneau support open government and have worked for broadening public records.

Bruneau did not return repeated calls to his office.

Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, who also sits on the committee said he thinks a program that establishes records of vote changes would be good but does not know if Speer’s plan would be the best.