Only Vigilance will Bring Results
A little over a week ago, as the GOP dominated Pennsylvania House was wrangling over what to do to achieve an almost six month late budget freshman Democratic Governor Tom Wolf might finally sign, a move was made to revert to a budget approved by the also GOP controlled Senate, known as the “framework”. That general fund budget included $30.8 billion in spending, along with marginal pension and liquor reform, but not the tax increases necessary to pay for it.
Nonetheless, having given up on a move to send the Governor a stopgap emergency budget that he promised to veto, an attempt was made in the House to set the Senate bill up for a vote. When it was approved by just one vote 100-99, someone told Rep Daryl Metcalfe that one of the yes votes was cast by Rep Peter Daley, who was not on the floor.
On a subsequent motion to reconsider, Rep Metcalfe, a Republican, observed Democratic Rep Mike Schlossberg pushing the voting button of Rep Daley. This prompted Metcalfe to inform the Speaker, who ordered all members to be in their seats for further votes.
Very quickly the word got out, with tweets claiming “ghost voting” and suggesting that for Schlossberg it’s one man, two votes. Several media outlets reported on the ghost voting. At no point, on social media, did anyone defend what most saw as shocking, immoral, dishonest behavior.
As it turns out, a total of three votes were cast for members not present in the hall of the house as the rules require. In the case of Democratic Rep Leslie Acosta, she was reported to be in Nicaragua. Republican Rep John Maher claimed he was just steps away due to business in his capitol office, and had his vote cast for him as a courtesy.
The following day I was in the capitol. Being an occasional visitor, in talking to several trusted friends who are there much more often, in a short period of time I heard some very revealing stories about ghost voting.
First, they all agreed that ghost voting is not a rare event but common practice! It’s one of those things where, in spite of a rule against it, everyone looks the other way.
Beyond this revelation that would shock the average citizen, who would likely question the practice as a serious breach of the public trust, I was told of a practice where legislators sometimes rig their voting devices with pennies to cast a vote for them when off the floor. Then sometimes they forget to remove them! If this doesn’t sound like high school, it gets worse!
On the Senate side the rules allow voting for an absent member, but only when on either capitol leave for business within a 10 mile radius of the capitol, or legislative leave, for business within their home district. I imagine an example of capitol leave may include appearing at Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico’s office to be charged with a crime.
Even so, when Senate votes are cast for a member on appropriate leave, they are required to be cast by the floor leader of that member’s party and no one else. Yet as I was told, sometimes the leave type is changed for a member prior to a vote to make it legit. One known story that goes around is of a Senate member tweeting pictures of himself from an Atlantic Ocean beach while on legislative leave, and yes, having a vote cast on his behalf!
Rep Metcalfe has called for a House Ethics Committee investigation. He also wants to see house rules changed so members could move to invalidate votes where rules have been broken. While this makes sense, the Senate likewise should take a look at its rules regarding voting.
If there’s good news in all of this, it’s that someone got caught in the act where the outcome of a vote was possibly affected, and the practice has become publicly known. It presents a real opportunity to clamp down on behavior that no one has tried to defend, making reform in short order a likely possibility, if (and here’s the if) the issue is not allowed to fade from the public discourse.
Make no mistake. Everyone wants this incident to be behind them. A representative of House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody’s office told me today that House leaders from both parties have discussed the ghost voting issue over the past week. Being the type of thing that can quickly fade from people’s minds, silence can quickly open the door to do nothing, allowing continuance in a comfort zone of corruption. Constant reminders from an aware public, on the other hand, will likely result in quick action. On this one, ordinary citizens hold an unusual amount of power.