Sharp-eyed Hearst colleague Ken Dixon reports on his blog that state officials want to spend $800,000 on new electronic voting boards for the House of Representatives.
Maybe lawmakers should consider extending the life of the equipment by not changing their votes as often as they do. Our report from 2007, when a couple of GOP legislators found themselves mocked in video footage for their apparent indecisiveness…
By Brian Lockhart
The term flip-flopper is often used against politicians accused of saying one thing then later reversing their position.
But many Connecticut residents may not know, that when their representatives in the General Assembly vote on bills, they are able to change their votes as often as they can in the minutes before it is recorded.
“You could switch it 19 times, ” said House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk.
State legislators cast votes by pushing buttons at their desks that correspond to large electronic tally boards hanging above the House and Senate floors. A “no” vote is represented by a red light blinking next to the politician’s name. A green light indicates “yes.”.
But sometimes a vote is held open for a few minutes before the voting system is locked and tallies are counted. The voting equipment allows state representatives and senators to alter their votes during that time.
This results in scenarios like the May 3 action by the House of Representatives on a constitutional amendment that would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in state primaries. When the voting began, a few Republicans, including Cafero, hit their green light, then their red light a few minutes later.
And in the case of state Rep. John Ryan, R-Darien, the vote light by his name alternated several times, finally settling on “no.”
The Connecticut Young Democrats have circulated video footage of the May voting, criticizing Cafero and Ryan as flip-floppers on what the group’s members considered an important bill.
But a few Democrats, including state Rep. Carlo Leone of Stamford appeared equally indecisive, reversing their votes from “no” to “yes” in the same time frame.
“This happens periodically, ” said Christopher Barnes, a longtime political observer and former director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Survey Research and Analysis. “There have been times when they hold the vote for a long time because senator-so-and-so is in the bathroom. . . . It’s been used most controversially in the past for arm-twisting.
“You’ll see swarms of key staffers going to people with their light in the wrong direction, saying ‘what the hell?’ ”
Ryan did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Cafero said his changed vote exemplifies why legislators need a few minutes to reconsider – because they sometimes accidentally push the wrong button.
“I voted ‘yes, ‘ wanting to vote ‘no.’ Somebody said, ‘Larry, you voted yes.’ I said ‘Oh my, God, ‘ I went back and voted ‘no, ‘ ” Cafero said. “Nobody twisted my arm.”
But, Cafero said, there is nothing wrong with legislators changing their views on a bill and revoting.
“What’s wrong with two minutes to reflect on what you’ve just done?” Cafero said.
Gary Rose, professor of politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, said the practice is not uncommon among state assemblies and he does not have a problem with allowing a few minutes to reverse votes.
“A lot of lobbyists do approach lawmakers during that period, but it does allow for citizen input and the input of people who represent large and sometimes small organizations, ” Rose said. “I think in the end it does result in a little more deliberation, which is a good thing.”
But Susan Kniep, president of the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayer Organizations Inc., said she was unaware of the practice. She said allowing legislators the opportunity to switch their initial vote is wrong.
“I would have assumed when they vote it’s set in stone, ” Kniep said. “One would think before our legislators vote on any item they have thought about that issue independently, weighed the pros and cons and have come to the table to vote their conscience.”
According to House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, who presides over House votes, it becomes more complicated during the hustle and bustle of the session, when daily agendas are long and 151 state representatives are milling about.
Amann said there is no limit on how long he can keep a vote open, “but you don’t want to overdo it.” He said he frequently consults the tally board to see whether individuals he knows are present have voted and, if not, tries to determine why from other legislators.
“They’ll tell me right away ‘Slow it down a little, let’s find them’ (or) ‘So and so went home or are skipping a vote because they’re in the middle of a meeting, ‘ ” Amann said.
The speaker said colleagues sometimes hit the wrong vote button and need to correct the mistake. Others, he said, change votes because they learn something new about a bill or realize colleagues they trust voted differently.
“There’s thousands of issues that come through the legislature every year. Not everyone sits on every committee. Even as speaker of the house, I’ll say ‘What bill is this?’ ” Amann said.
Leone said in the time between voting “no” then “yes” for the constitutional amendment May 3, he spoke to a sponsor of the legislation, who allayed some of his concerns about letting 17-year-olds vote in state primaries.
“Some votes are not clear-cut, ” Leone said. “It’s nice to have that little extra opportunity to talk to someone before you make that final decision. Sometimes your gut reaction is a good one, sometimes it’s not.”
And sometimes, he said, vote switches are part of the political gamesmanship surrounding controversial bills.
“We ask a guy ‘Can you go from red to green for us? We need one for the team, ‘ ” Amann said. “The Republicans counter and one guy goes to a ‘no.’ That’s politics. It’s a chess game.”
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, also has served in the House and said vote switches are more common there because of the number of members. There are 36 state senators.
“I don’t think it’s a real issue, ” Duff said. “We don’t have a gray button. It’s only green or red. And sometimes we’re not sure.”
Despite his criticism of Cafero’s and Ryan’s changing their votes last week, Lon Seidman, co-president of the Connecticut Young Democrats, said he would not alter the process.
Neither would Phil Sherwood, legislative director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.
“I think there’s many reasons why legislators switch votes. Some might be noble, some might not be so noble. If things like this happen and it works in our favor, it’s beautiful. If it works against you, it’s an ugly thing, ” Sherwood said. “But we should be concerned the concentration of power at the capitol doesn’t fall into too few hands.”