Assembly's Vote-Switching at Issue


Shortly after noon one day last week, the state Assembly voted on legislation intended to protect hospital "whistle-blowers." The tally was 42-32. Or was it?

After the vote was announced, Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) switched his "aye" vote and abstained. As a result, the margin slipped to 41-32, the bare minimum needed for approval.

Like many of his colleagues, freshman Hertzberg had taken advantage of a long-standing tradition of changing a vote after the fact, a practice on display as much this week--the final week of the 1997 session--as any time.

"I made a mistake," Hertzberg said in an interview. "I stayed off of that bill in committee . . . for policy reasons, and inadvertently in the rush of things when I was running around doing stuff" voted in favor of the measure when it was on the Assembly floor.

At issue is whether this Assembly ritual is misleading to the public, a political sleight of hand that enables members to cast their votes one way but later, if their vote isn't needed or they have a change of heart, to switch sides.

Under the Assembly's internal rules, the changes can't alter the outcome of the vote, but that doesn't stop members from scrambling to the rostrum at the conclusion of the day's agenda to line up to announce switches. One student of the Legislature recalls that a shoving match once took place in the queue.

The daily litany of vote changes is as much a part of the Assembly's culture as the opening prayer. And like the prayer, the revised vote tally is published in fine print in the Assembly Daily Journal.

Both Republicans and Democrats change votes, and legislators on both sides say they would be willing to scrap the system and, like the Senate, bar members from switching votes or wandering onto the floor and adding their votes.

"I like the Senate model better," Hertzberg said, noting that the upper house members vote with their voices, not electronic buttons. "It keeps people at their desk and in the room."

On some measures, especially contentious issues, members will sometimes prevent any vote changes.

Assemblyman Jim Morrissey (R-Anaheim) suggested that viewers watching the televised proceedings on cable TV might be baffled to see legislators jump up to limit changes. Earlier this year, he described such a restriction as "a political move by one party or the other party to try to embarrass members in the next election."

This week, Morrissey said he favors ending the practice of vote changing but still would allow absent legislators to add on to the roll call. "You may be out of the room using the restroom," the legislator said, and want to vote on a bill.

Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-San Jose) favors the system.

"When you are faced with literally thousands of bills every year, not on every one of them are you going to be completely sure that the vote you initially cast is the right vote," Cunneen said.

"And I think this is part of the process . . . and as long as you cannot change the outcome of a vote, I think it's legitimate," he said.

Cunneen estimated that this year he has probably changed his vote twice. On one occasion in July, Cunneen and two other Republicans lined up to switch their votes on a school construction measure. Cunneen went from favoring the proposal to abstaining and Republicans Lynne Leach of Walnut Creek and Rod Pacheco of Riverside moved from opposition to not voting.

Cunneen said he switched once he realized that the proposal was a "spot bill," a shell of a bill that would be totally overhauled. "And that wasn't perfectly obvious when the bill was presented," he said.

Leach said she could not recall the details but acknowledged that she has sometimes switched after receiving new information. "I'm not sure I'm willing to give it up totally, but I probably wouldn't cry if they did away with it either," Leach said.

Veteran Assembly watchers note that the current system evolved over 30 years.

In contrast, the Senate allows only President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) and GOP Leader Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove) to add their names to the roll call because their duties often pull them away from the floor action.

Not surprisingly, Lockyer prefers the Senate voting method, saying it is one of the reasons the upper chamber is regarded as a more deliberative body.

"I assume the reason for our rule is the belief that a more informed decision takes place when people are listening to the debate," Lockyer said. "To allow add-ons diminishes the value of public discussion."

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