April 2, 2008

Texas lawmaker pushes for end to 'ghost voting': Fingerprint technology proposed for each House member's desk

Texas lawmaker pushes for end to 'ghost voting'

Fingerprint technology proposed for each House member's desk

10:16 PM CDT on Wednesday, April 2, 2008
By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Dallas Rep. Tony Goolsby is pushing for an end to so-called "ghost voting" by Texas House members, asking for their input on a proposal to install fingerprint technology into their desk voting machines.

Download: See the letter from state Rep. Tony Goolsby to House members

The change would end the practice of lawmakers voting each other in absentia, a long tradition roundly criticized by open-government advocates.

Mr. Goolsby, a Republican who heads the House Administration Committee that would oversee such a project, said in a letter to House members that the situation needs to be resolved "effectively and permanently." He plans to start holding hearings on implementing what he called a "very significant change" in House procedures.

"It would be necessary for members to attend to floor proceedings, in person, beginning with the initial roll call continuing through every record vote," Mr. Goolsby said in a letter he sent to all House members on Wednesday. "Members need to understand that the implementation of this change would end any voting other than by the individual member's own personal presence and physical action."

Installing the machines at all 150 desks, as well as a couple in each corner of the chamber and a few in the members' lounge, could cost roughly $400,000, but Mr. Goolsby said that the committee is still pricing the project.

He declined to comment further, saying he wanted to get more input from House members.

House members have been criticized for voting from each others' desks, which they've defended as a courtesy and matter of trust among members.

They also say that it allows them to not miss votes while they're outside the chamber meeting with lobbyists or constituent groups, who routinely call them off the House floor during session.

But the practice has also led to convenient excuses for changing votes on controversial issues, opening the House with less than a quorum, and embarrassing situations over the years – including an incident in which a House member was shown voting after he'd died.

House Speaker Tom Craddick wants the issue addressed, spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said, though he isn't endorsing a specific approach.

"We recognize it's a concern, and we're asking members to look for solutions," she said.

Open government advocates called it "a great idea."

"Every session there's some embarrassing story about legislators getting caught voting for their colleagues on the floor," said Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen. "And the citizens are often puzzled by the phenomenon of legislators reaching all over the desks and punching other peoples' voting machines."

Currently, members can simply lock their desk voting machines when they leave the desk, but it's voluntary.

Unlike Congress, where members are given 15 minutes' notice before each vote so they can return to the floor in time to record their votes, a vote on the House floor can come up at any time.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who last session was shown voting in favor of a bill that he had railed against on the floor, said he would consider supporting Mr. Goolsby's proposal only if there were machines in other places, like the chamber corners and the members' lounge, in addition to the desks, to allow them to conduct business away from their desks.

"It has some merit," he said, "but it starts the conversation instead of finishing it."

Instances of 'ghost voting' in the Texas House •In 1991, Houston Rep. Larry Evans died unexpectedly early one morning but was shown voting at least three times on measures throughout the day.

•In July 2005, someone voted as Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Craig Eiland, both Democrats, during a crucial vote on a tax-swap bill. Turns out Mr. Eiland was in Boston and Mr. Martinez Fischer was in Spain.

•In 2007, Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, was recorded as voting in favor of a bill exempting the names of concealed-handgun licensees from open-records laws after he had railed against it on the House floor. Mr. Coleman was in his office during the vote.


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