SACRAMENTO (AP) — California Assembly leaders say they have no plans to change their longstanding practice of adding and changing thousands of votes after their votes are cast on the Legislature floor, despite criticism from good government groups that say it allows lawmakers to obscure their real positions and curry favor with lobbyists.
An Associated Press analysis found that lawmakers in the 80-member Assembly changed their votes more than 5,000 times during the 2012 legislative session.
Nearly half of the newly sworn in Assembly members are new to the job, and all were elected after significant changes to the electoral process, including independently drawn districts and a top-two primary. Those reforms changed the campaigns and hopefully will lead to different behavior once lawmakers are in Sacramento, said Jim Mayer, executive director of California Forward, a government reform group.
“The optics matter,” when lawmakers participate in things such as adding and switching their votes, Mayer said. “These kinds of rules may matter more now than they did last year, because the voters can hold this Legislature accountable better now than they could their predecessors.”
At least one new member, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said he intends to limit vote-switching to rare instances.
“It’s not something I intend to engage in outside of some extraordinary circumstance, outside of when a mistake was made or a wrong button was pushed,” he said. “As a practice I think you ought to vote whatever your conscience is and whatever the correct decision is for your constituents.”
He said he supports allowing lawmakers to add their votes to legislation after the fact, though, because lawmakers face competing demands and sometimes have to leave the floor.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, defended vote additions and switches on similar grounds.
“Folks have committees that sometimes they have to prepare for concurrently with a floor activity,” Perez, D-Los Angeles, told reporters as lawmakers were sworn in last week. “Some committees meet immediately after floor. Sometimes a member has to go and meet off the floor with staff to prepare for a meeting with a chair. Sometimes the call of nature comes when one is on the floor of the Legislature. And they go and avail of themselves of facilities and come back. And they will miss a vote.”
The additions and switches cannot affect the overall outcome of the bill — whether it passed or failed. The state Senate allows vote changes only for the two party leaders.
“The Senate doesn’t have this problem,” said Philip Ung, a spokesman for the good government group California Common Cause. “Senators go to the bathroom. Senators step out of the room, but they’re still able to vote on things in a more public way than the Assembly does, with a voice vote and not switch it. You don’t see any senators having an issue with that.”
Common Cause had hoped to include legislation on vote additions and changes as part of a package on transparency, but “we’ve yet to find anyone who’s willing to take on the challenge of taking an Assembly member’s power away,” Ung said.
The AP contacted all 38 freshman members of the state Assembly. Staff in many of their offices said the lawmakers did not know about the practice of vote-switching, and most declined to comment on it.
Ben Golombek, a spokesman for Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Pacoima, said the assemblyman will not make it a regular practice to add or change his votes, although it may happen from time to time when there are conflicting meetings.
“But he’ll certainly make an effort to reduce any conflict so that that might have to occur,” Golombek said.
Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, said the vote additions and changes “are a symptom of much larger problems,” including the need to limit the number of bills that are taken up and giving lawmakers more time to study the issues.
“Also, some of the largest issues are voted on at the last minute with little or no time to review their policy implications,” Conway said in a statement. “More time to review legislation and fewer bills to consider will have a greater impact on improving how public policy is made.”
She said Republican lawmakers have written several pieces of legislation in recent years aimed at improving transparency, most of which died before they were taken up on the floor. That includes legislation that would require the state budget be in print for 72 hours before lawmakers vote on it, rather than the last-minute dash under the current system.