Assembly speaker moves to stop 'ghost voting'

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass took the necessary first step toward ending the practice of "ghost voting." In a closed-door caucus Tuesday, she instructed Assembly Democrats to pull the keys out of their electronic voting machines when they leave the chamber.

The speaker's edict comes in response to evidence that legislators were voting for each other - in open violation of the rules - in the rush to beat a late-May deadline for bills to clear their houses of orgin. In one case, Assemblyman Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat who serves as assistant majority floor leader, voted "yes" for Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley, on a housing-related bill she opposed. Hayashi was elsewhere in the State Capitol at the time. Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, intervened to switch Hayashi's vote to "not voting," which has the effect of a no vote.

Bass said she reminded her colleagues of Assembly Rule 104: "A member may not operate the voting switch of any other member."

However, Bass did allow some leeway for members to leave their keys in - and to operate a voting switch on another's behalf, with permission - when they are "on the green carpet." That would include areas within line of sight of their desks: The Assembly floor, the members' lounge and adjoining hallway.

Bass explained that the Assembly member presiding over a floor session can see on a monitor which members have their keys in their voting machines. It would be readily apparent if a member left the chamber without removing his or her voting key.

"I did not ask them to take their keys with them because we would then have a lot of lost keys," she said.

In another sensible move to prevent a recurrence of the chaos of late May, Bass said the Assembly would recess a floor session whenever one of its committees was going to meet "for any length of time." De León's "ghost vote" for Hayashi came while she was engaged in a budget subcommittee hearing on the fourth floor.

While the new "green carpet" guideline represents a vast improvement over past customs and meets practical concerns, it still falls short of full compliance with Rule 104. The Assembly should change the rule to reflect the guidelines laid out by Bass.

If these legislators are going to pass laws on individuals and businesses - and expect them to be respected and enforced, even when we find them onerous - then they need to set an example by adhering to their own rules.

This article appeared on page B - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle