Flashback to Jan. 3, 2008: A truly strange contingent of Democrats has descended upon the state of Iowa to begin what will be a six-month fight for the party nomination. At that point, the field featured a host of the most repugnant species of elected officials vying for the nomination, the career politician. Included on the list were the longest serving United States senator in the history of Connecticut and a U.S. senator from Delaware who’d been in office for 35 years. Additionally, the motley crew included two bizarre fringe candidates, an adulterous trial lawyer from North Carolina who once spent $1,250 on a haircut, a former first lady who survived her own husband’s public bout with infidelity and a senator from Illinois with a peculiar sounding name.
Surprisingly, these laughable personal characteristics did not decide the party’s nomination. In what would turn out to be one of the more decisive issues of the entire election season, the candidates’ voting records on the war in Iraq were critically examined. Despite what a particular candidate claimed on the airwaves or in a debate, his or her voting records provided inadmissible evidence of what they truly felt on the issue. In an otherwise muddled process in which voters generally have to extend some amount of “good faith” into accepting campaign promises, examining voting records provided clarity and truth. A candidate could not deviate from their past votes on the war.
Now fast-forward to this year in California. Such transparency and clarity may no longer exist on the local level of politics. In what can only be described as a cosmetic voting procedure, members of the California State Assembly are legally allowed to change their vote on record after a bill passes or fails. While the majority of the changes were members who did not vote the first time, but merely added a vote after passage or failure, these actions of changing an official vote are deplorable.
What follows is the rule on record regarding vote changing: “In the state Assembly, prior to adjournment on the same legislative day and in the absences of any objection a lawmaker can instruct the chief clerk to change his or her recorded vote after the vote is announced, as long as the outcome of the vote is not changed.”
Collectively, these actions allow our esteemed electorate to skirt any real responsibility yet allow them to profiteer of their “votes,” by adding them to their official records. In effect, members of the Assembly can “doctor” their voting records like a housewife in Beverly Hills getting a face lift, in order to appease potential voters in an impending election season. Vote switching also permits Assembly members to avoid taking part in the true responsibility of their positions, which is casting legislative votes, and it further isolates them from the risk of making a controversial vote.
A review by The Associated Press found 419 instances of California Assembly members changing their votes in the past two months alone. In this same time period, only 75 bills were reviewed by the same legislative body. This is an amazing amount of vote changing — that is, until one realizes 2012 is an election year for all Assembly members.
The most serial of the vote changers are Assemblymen Jim Miller and Kevin Jeffries. Miller made 31 vote changes in the first two months of this year, while Jeffries changed 25 of his votes. Both have claimed they couldn’t adequately vote if uninformed about the legislation to explain the sheer number of changes, as Miller specifically said, “You got to read the bills before they vote and sometimes that doesn’t happen,” and Jeffries said, “I just refuse to cast bad votes because I haven’t had time to ask questions or study material.”
Well, thanks for the open admission of neglecting to do your legislative duty because you weren’t adequately prepared. Only in an exotic utopia could one expect a level of professionalism and dedication from their elected officials including something like reading potential legislation prior to voting. In attempting to defend the usage of the vote changing practice, these two men have succinctly positioned themselves. Their own personal lives or their commitments to the golf course seemingly take more priority than the specific responsibilities of their positions.
Legislators cannot be allowed to use ignorance of a bill or unfamiliarity with the context as an excuse for failing to vote. This behavior should be regarded as neglecting their most basic obligation, a failure to uphold the responsibility of the office and a violation of the public trust. Changing votes, failing to vote or admitting to being uninformed about potential legislation is a dereliction of duty.
Fortunately for voters, elected officials on both the state and national levels can still be reviewed by their voting records. The gold standard of measuring an incumbent politician through the votes cast still exists. For the California Assembly, a more beneficial evaluation may come in reviewing the sheer number of votes changed by a given member, with a higher number correlating to a greater urgency to remove the person from office.