There’s a long Legislatorland tradition of “taking a walk” when an uncomfortable voting situation appears, but that seems to have been largely replaced by the increasingly popular practice of sitting on hands.
The old way of dodging a vote requires a legislator, upon seeing a troublesome voting decision at hand, to physically exit the scene, perhaps declaring the need for a rest room visit or some such so that he or she is not present when the roll is called. This requires a public exit, which may be noticed and pointed out by colleagues, and has thus been a fairly infrequent occurrence.
Hand sitting requires no physical activity whatsoever. The practitioner simply pretends he or she is not there, and it seems nobody ever notices or points this out.
A fine example would be the House floor vote a few days ago involving whether to prohibit employers from dismissing employees who hold handgun carry permits for having a gun stashed in a locked car on the company parking lot. Setting aside the political and procedural situation, the vote was recorded as 45-29-1 in House records.
Observe that 45, the number of yes votes; plus 29, the number of no votes; plus the one (that was a “present and not voting” or PNV in Legislatorland abbreviation lingo) adds up to 75. There are 99 members of the House.
So what happened to the other 24 ladies and gentlemen elected to vote their conscience and/or represent their constituents in making decisions on state policy and law? Well, they were officially not there. Or, if they were, they sat on their hands.
They did not push the green yes button on their electronic legislative voting machines, nor the red no button, nor even (with the one exception, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge) the blue PNV button.
Now, a PNV vote is otherwise known as abstaining — basically admitting that you can’t decide what the best thing to do is in the situation.
That’s an honest and responsible position to hold on occasion. Sitting on hands and pretending to be absent, it is submitted, is — at the least — somewhat less honest and responsible.
The difference: A PNV is officially recorded indecision, available for all to see — including constituents and opponents to the legislator’s re-election who may denounce the legislator as either spineless or not a believer in the cause at issue. And that has happened in the past. Repeated and recorded indecision has led to such things as denunciations on talk radio or attack advertising in an opponent’s campaign brochure.
Ah, but sitting on hands and doing absolutely nothing adds a comforting level of obscurity to the legislator’s indecisive inaction. The hand sitter names are recorded nowhere.
To figure out who they were requires a bit of tedious research on each individual vote — determining that a given legislator’s name is missing from the list of those who voted one way or another, then determining if he or she was actually not present due to illness or some other understandable reason. To reliably identify habitual hand sitters — casual observation indicates there are some — would require hundreds of bits of tedious research.
Last year, there was some negative publicity for the Legislature surrounding the practice of “ghost voting.” House Speaker Beth Harwell addressed the issue in House rule changes, though it didn’t get as much attention as her imposition of a 15-bill ceiling on the number of legislative proposals a representative can introduce in one year.
Ghost voting involved one legislator pushing a green, red or blue button for an absent colleague — sometimes many missing colleagues. A TV camera caught lawmakers, often using a cane or stick to extend their reach, pushing buttons for multiple people, usually on noncontroversial matters. The new rules basically prohibit ghost voting.
Often the ghost votes came on procedural stuff; for example, the roll call vote at the start of each day’s session — a blue light — just to establish that each legislator is present.
In the new phenomena, the voting issues are significant, not procedural. And it’s as if the legislator is the ghost. You may see them at their desks, but insofar as voting, they’re not really there.
The ghost legislators’ position on an issue is mysterious. They are neither for nor against nor undecided. It’s kind of spooky to have legislators disappear without going anywhere.
Note: This is a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel, also appearing HERE.