AJC Watchdog: Ga. Senate rejects more transparency on votes

State Sen. Josh Mckoon, R-Columbus, believes most votes should be recorded.

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

State Sen. Josh Mckoon, R-Columbus, believes most votes should be recorded.

Every citizen knows the baseline measure of political accountability is the vote.

How you vote says something about your values, priorities and perspectives on society. And how our elected officials vote says the same about them, which is why over the years voters have demanded a greater ability to track their leaders’ moves.

This week, the Senate Rules Committee declined to shed a little more sunshine on that process by voting down a proposal that would have made recorded votes on floor amendments more common. It's a fine point of parliamentary procedure, but an important one to the conservative activists who packed a committee room Monday to show their support for Senate Resolution 24.

Under current rules, amendments to a bill offered from the Senate floor are voted on by a show of hands, rather than an electronically recorded vote. This happens all the time as important or controversial bills often attract amendments seeking to water them down or stiffen them up. Frequently senators try to attach their own bills that are stuck in committee to bills on the floor.

Senators vote on these amendments by raising their hands. The tally is announced, but how individual senators voted is not recorded.

The resolution, offered by Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, would have forced a recorded vote if just one senator asked for it. Currently, it takes five Senators objecting to require a recorded vote.

“For me this is a simple rule change that will encourage more openness and transparency in the way the Senate operates,” McKoon told the committee.

The proposed change isn’t revolutionary. A partial survey of states around the country found that 19 state senates require fewer than five senators to trigger a roll call vote. Georgia would join Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska and Vermont as states where one senator could require a recorded vote, he said.

Opponents: rule change would lead to delays

But McKoon’s Republican colleagues were unmoved.

Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said the rule change would "slow our process down," since recorded votes take a full minute to tally. The current Senate rule already is more forgiving than the state constitution requires, he said.

Moreover, Cowsert said, voters already have a way to see how their senators vote, thanks to live internet streaming of the legislative session.

“We have such transparency,” he said. “We are videotaped and broadcast live, streamed live while the votes are occurring, and if you are curious how your representative or your senator may vote, watch the film.”

Video coverage of such votes is imprecise, at best. Hand votes are over in a few seconds, barely enough time for the chamber’s cameras to make a quick pass over the floor where senators are often out of their seats and sometimes in the distant background of such shots.

D.A. King, an advocate for tougher laws on immigrants and a regular annoyance for some at the Capitol, said he watches the unrecorded votes carefully.

“I count the hands. I’ve seen senators go under the gallery so you can’t see them vote,” he said.

Had Republicans been forced to make their votes public on floor amendments, King said a floor amendment in 2015 to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving driver’s licenses “would have passed with flying colors” because senators would not have wanted to return their districts otherwise.

While Republicans balked, McKoon and the conservative activists did have support on the committee. It came from the Democrats.

Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, said the the five-senator rule is hard to overcome because it often requires a break with party discipline. Senators fear reprisals from leadership when asking for a roll call vote on a controversial topic, he said.

“Why don’t we pass this, allow openness and fairness and allow people to see how people vote on amendments?” he said, drawing incongruent applause from conservatives in the audience.

Why cede ‘to people who … disagree with us?’

But Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, said allowing a single senator to trigger a roll call vote would give Democrats a weapon they could use to block the passage of bills in the final hours of a legislative session.

“What this will do is allow the minority of the people in the Senate to drive the clock and drive the agenda,” Hill told McKoon. “If you and I agree that being Republican and conservative is a good thing, which I think we do, then why would we want to cede the process to people who … disagree with us?”

McKoon didn’t bite. First, Democrats — there are 18 in the Senate — already could slow the process by requiring an extra minute to vote on floor amendments, if that’s what they want.

“It would only take five of their caucus if they wanted to demand a roll call vote of every item. That certainly has not been my experience,” he said.

More to the point, McKoon said if leadership is worried that a minority of senators could use the rule to slow the legislative process, then they should not “funnel all of our legislative activity in the final two or three days.”

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, chair of the Senate Rules Committee, opposed the move to have more votes be recorded electronically, rather than by a show of hands. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

‘They don’t care what the public desires’

The concern expressed about the precious time recorded votes could cost over a 40-day session did not sit well with activists who waited 45 minutes for Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga. to arrive and convene the meeting. You could feel the indignation rising as the minutes ticked by.

“These groups are such insular bodies, they don’t care what the public desires,” said Steve Brown, a Fayette County commissioner and tea party activist. “They make us sit here for 45 minutes for their meeting and then complain they don’t have enough time to do anything. And the chairman is sitting behind the door the entire time. I saw him when I came in.”

“It’s like living in a bizarro world,” added Cherokee County tea partier Jack Staver.

By the time Mullis loudly gaveled the meeting to order, many in the room were aching to speak. That’s probably why Mullis began by telling them they couldn’t.

“Since this is a Senate Rules resolution, we’ll take testimony only from senators regarding the Senate rules,” he said.

That’s part of what the debate is really about — the power of an established majority versus the shrill voice of a minorities from within and without seeking redress. Red meat Republican activists and Democrats both want to creep their ideas onto the public stage, but the GOP leadership sees no upside in that so the rule change went down in defeat.

For the rest of us, that means there will continue to be unrecorded votes with senators raising their hands just out of camera range. McKoon said he was not surprised by the vote. These things take time, he said.

“People out in the real world would never do business like we do business here,” he said. “This isn’t just me that is concerned about this. The public needs to see how this process works.”