LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A voting method in the California State Assembly that some legislators call “common practice” is coming under fire from government watchdogs who say lawmakers are violating a fundamental rule.
Video from a recent vote to regulate outdoor advertising showed some legislators casting votes for other members who were out of their seats.
In the footage, the seat of Northeast L.A. Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez is empty, so Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer of South L.A. presses Gomez’s voting button.
Assemblyman Anthony Rendon of Lynwood is seen reaching behind his seat to vote for Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Burbank, and Assemblywoman Diane Harkey from San Juan Capistrano is seen voting for her seatmate, Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach.
Both Democrats and Republicans who engage in the practice — known as “ghost voting” — say it is simply helping a neighbor with their permission.
“It’s a common practice,” Assemblyman Rendon told CBS2′s political reporter Dave Bryan. “We often vote for the folks who are either your seatmates or right behind you.”
“We just give a thumbs up or a thumbs down,” said Assemblyman Gomez.
But the rules of the State Assembly clearly forbid the practice, stating “a member may not operate the voting switch of any other member.” The only exception allowed is for a member who is away from his or her desk to stand in for the speaker and lead the session.
Critics of the practice argue voting is the lawmakers’ job.
“We elect lawmakers to Sacramento to do one job: legislate,” said Carmen Balber of Consumer Watchdog. “Voting is a key part of that job, and when lawmakers don’t take that step on their own it’s a fraud against the public.”
Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, a Democratic Whip, told CBS2′s Dave Bryan he asked Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer to vote for him because he was standing across the room during the vote and was unable to return to his seat in time. Later in the day Gomez returned the favor and voted for Jones-Sawyer when he was away from his seat.
Asked why he engages in a practice that the rules forbid, Gomez said it’s an accepted custom.
“The rules say you can’t do it, but the custom is that you can,” said Gomez. As one of the legislative whips, Gomez said, “I do it because my job is to work the room to make sure those bills get out.”
Kathay Feng of Common Cause California said the real danger is when a ghost vote is cast against a member’s wishes.
“We saw in 2008 multiple complaints by legislators who were not on the floor that a vote had been cast in their name against their wishes,” she said.
Assemblyman Rendon said lawmakers cast “a few thousand votes,” and the system is practical.
“It would be exceptionally difficult unless you were sort of chained to your desk. I don’t know of any work environment anywhere where people have to sit at their desks all day,” he said. “You talk to your seatmates, those adjacent to you. It’s a good system. A system that works.”
Feng said the frequency of ghost voting suggests that view is shared by leadership in the State Assembly.
“The practice of ghost voting is so rampant that it’s pretty clear that leadership is not only turning a blind eye to it, I think they’re encouraging it,” she said.
“We want a legislator that’s present,” said Feng. “We pay them a healthy amount in salary and we want them to do their jobs.”
Assembly Speaker John Perez told CBS2 the practice allows for maximum efficiency in voting and does not violate the rules because it is a longstanding practice.