Saturday, February 27, 2021
Feb. 27, 2021

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In Our View: Change the Rules

State reps routinely engage in vote-by-proxy, but that doesn't make it any less offensive

The Columbian

Legislators would go ballistic if someone else voted for you. For one thing, it’s against the law. Why, then, shouldn’t you be angry when legislators don’t also vote on their own?

Of course you should be angry, but in the state House of Representatives the practice is more than just widespread, it’s pervasive. We’ve been unable to find one state rep who hasn’t, at one time or another, instructed a colleague to punch a “yes” or “no” vote while the absent politician was out in the hallways meeting with constituents, visiting a restroom or leaving the chamber for another reason.

There’s little hope this abuse of the voting system will end. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, have shown no inclination to stop the voting-by-proxy stunt. (In the 98-member House, legislators use an electronic voting machine linked to a scoreboard, and push buttons on their desks to cast their votes.)

This tactic came to light recently when Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver, accused Rep. Jaime Herrera, R-Camas, of being absent from the House floor “for hours on end” and asking others to vote for her while she is out of the chamber. Wallace registered the accusation as she was bowing out of the race for the 3rd Congressional District, which is being vacated by the retiring Brian Baird. Herrera remains in that race. Wallace also said of Herrera: “Either she is in the building fundraising, which is illegal, or she is off campus and she has not been excused,” to which Herrera replied angrily: “Deb has no credibility, she has no proof. … I have missed 10 votes in my entire time as a legislator here. I haven’t missed any votes (by being) off the floor this session.” But Wallace stuck with her accusation, and said that she, too, has asked others to vote for her on occasion.

This takes us to our main point, which is not to take Wallace’s or Herrera’s side in their spat but to denounce state representatives for routinely engaging in a voting practice that is patently illegal among the rest of us.

The state reps have plenty of excuses, almost bragging points, such as never turning down a request to meet with a constituent. “It’s not like someone is making a decision for you,” state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said in a Wednesday telephone interview. “You let a colleague know how you want to vote while you’re away for a few minutes, and they push the button for you.”

As Kathie Durbin reported in The Columbian, DeBolt said, “If (members) leave the campus, they are supposed to excuse themselves. We have a hard and fast rule about that.” In such a case, a vote is recorded only as “excused.” So the practice of voting for each other sounds simple and innocent to the politicians, but not to us. If the practice were simple and innocent, it would be allowed in the Senate. But there, roll call voting is the rule, and properly so.

The Olympian newspaper recently recalled in an editorial: “In the 1980s, an Olympian reporter caught former Rep. Jim Jessernig, a Democrat from the Tri-Cities, casting 17 votes on one bill. He was a floor leader at the time and he simply moved up and down the aisle on the House floor punching the voting button on the desks of absent Democrats. … That same reporter caught colleagues of the late Rep. Sim Wilson, a Republican from Marysville, voting for Wilson while he was off the Capitol Campus collecting his laundry. Talk about taking the voters to the cleaners.” And therein lies the deeper problem. By-proxy voting only suggests the absent politician is nearby, but there’s nothing to prove he or she is not sprawled on a distant beach or back home nurturing campaign contributors.

Chopp and DeBolt should insist on a rules change. If the politicians can’t juggle their schedules better, maybe they need a course in time management. Following the example set by state senators would make perfect sense.