Minnesota House members are responsible for 100 percent of their votes, but they don’t push their voting buttons 100 percent of the time.
As legislators head into the longest days and nights of the session, watch the House during lengthy floor debates and invariably a representative will reach over to a neighbor’s desk to put up a red “no” or green “yes” vote for a colleague. It is against the rules but accepted.
“It’d be nice to have everybody on the floor voting, but … the reality is there are multiple things going on at times,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. “That’s just how it goes.”
Thissen is one in a long line of House speakers — from both parties — to allow the neighbor-voting-for-neighbor practice. Some representatives are a bit abashed about it. Others say it simply helps keep legislation moving.
“It’s the long-standing custom and usage of the House and that’s been recognized,” said former Speaker Steve Sviggum, the Kenyon Republican who ran the House from 1999 to 2006.
In the House chamber, each of the 134 members has a desk with his or her nameplate directly above a panel with voting buttons on it. Press the “yea” button and a green vote will appear on the large voting board, which shows all the votes; press the “nay” button and a red vote will be posted.
Bending the rules
The House rules clearly state that “a member must not vote on a question except at the member’s own seat in the chamber.” Yet, representatives in the Capitol but not sitting in their own chairs often end up with recorded votes.
House members commonly push the voting buttons for colleagues on less consequential issues that appear before the chamber, such as proposals to change a small part of a bill or measures that have massive support.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, first elected in 1972, said of neighbor voting, “Of all the things that could go wrong in the House, that’s one of the least likely ones to worry about.” As the Minneapolis DFLer stood in the back of the House chamber to explain her views on voting to a reporter, one of her friendly colleagues clicked the button on Kahn’s desk and Kahn’s vote was recorded on the motion before the House.
But sometimes, the atmosphere is far less relaxed.
On major issues, like the upcoming final votes on the state budget, all House members who are in the Capitol will be expected to be in their chairs to vote for themselves. If a House member is excused from voting, his or her voting board will be locked so that no vote can be recorded.
When the stakes are less high, neighbor voting can be rampant.
A single day’s floor session can involve hours of debate and dozens of roll-call votes. Such votes can pop up with little notice, making it nearly impossible to dash from, say, a restroom to their desks, members said. Other times members will dash out from the House floor for a bit to tend to other Capitol matters, leaving neighbors to push their buttons.
“You’ve got 80 things pulling at you all at the same time; sometimes that’s just the way you have to do it,” said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston. “By House rules, is it appropriate? Probably not. Is it done? Yes.”
In those cases, members’ practices vary. Some leave a list of how they would like to vote on upcoming issues. Others text their preferences. If they’re in the sightline of a member near their desks, some give a quick thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal to a seatmate to indicate their voting pleasure. As a last resort, some House members will just push the button they believe their seatmate would push if they were in the chamber.
Strict in the Senate
Not in the Senate.
That it is absolutely not the way the Minnesota Senate does it.
Like the House, Senate rules require members to be in their seats in order to vote. Unlike the House, “We enforce it very, very strictly,” said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope.
“I think the better practice is the one in the Senate, where no one is to touch your button, period,” said Rest, a Senate president pro tem who served 14 years in the House before joining the Senate.
In the Senate, the voting board sometimes is held open for long moments as members scurry — at times from several floors away — to punch their own buttons.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, admits that when he was in the House, he occasionally would push the voting button for his seatmate and have his seatmate do it for him. But after a decade in the Senate, he has come to believe the upper chamber has the right attitude.
“I think everyone should be responsible for their own vote,” Bakk said. “I support the Senate position of having to cast your own vote. I think that’s the right thing.”