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Politics

Quinn Wants Probe Of Voting ‘Monkey Business’

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Photo: Frank Polich/Getty Images

Photo: Frank Polich/Getty Images

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) Gov. Pat Quinn, after losing some high-profile votes at
the Capitol, has launched an attack against a longstanding but ethically shaky
tradition in the Illinois Legislature: lawmakers and staff voting for members
who aren’t present.

Sounding like the rabble-rousing consumer advocate
he used to be, Quinn is using words like “rotten” and “investigation” and
“monkey business” about the practice, something that’s done openly every time
lawmakers convene.

This attack is likely to worsen Quinn’s relationship
with lawmakers, some of whom already scowl when his name comes up. He publicly
suggests their votes are swayed by political donations, criticizes their work
and barely communicates with them on some key issues.

Legislators voting
for absent colleagues did not change the outcome of the vote that triggered the
Democratic governor’s outrage, a measure on electricity rates and regulation.
Quinn opposed it, but the House approved the bill 91-24 with little or no
discussion.

Afterward, a handful of people rose to say they had voted
the wrong way by mistake or their voting switch malfunctioned.

That’s
legislative code. Roughly, it means: “I was out of the room so the person who
sits next to me tried to help by hitting the `yes’ button but didn’t realize I
wanted to vote `no’.”

The bill would have passed even if everyone had
been at their desks to vote correctly. After all, a related but more
controversial measure passed later with several votes to spare. It reversed
Quinn’s override of the “Smart Grid” bill, which lets power companies raise
rates and limits the oversight of state regulators.

It was a major
defeat for Quinn on his highest priority of the fall session, one of several
setbacks. He decided to go on the attack.

“Any monkey business needs to
be investigated,” Quinn said Friday in Bloomington. He said the Legislature’s
inspector general is required to look into the issue.

Earlier, he told
the Chicago Sun-Times: “Anybody watching this whole procedure where members may
not have actually voted their own switch on such an important bill would say
it’s rotten. … It’s a serious violation of ethical conduct.”

If it is
a serious violation, it’s one that takes place dozens of times, maybe hundreds,
every day that lawmakers vote on legislation.

Legislators don’t sit at
their desks for hours at a time just punching their voting buttons. They step
into the hallways to meet with constituents and lobbyists. They attend meetings
on important issues. They go to the bathroom. When they’re gone, another
legislator or aide will hit their switch, even though that violates legislative
rules.

It’s not unusual to see a legislator scurrying from desk to desk
to desk to fill in for absent colleagues on several bills in a row. Although
it’s less common now, some legislators have made little rubber-tipped sticks so
they can reach over and hit a seatmate’s button without getting out of their
chairs.

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan,
D-Chicago, suggested Quinn’s complaint has more to do with his defeat than who
pushed the “yes” buttons.

“My experience in life is when you fail,
you try to find somebody to blame,” Brown said. “I think that’s what’s
happening here.”

While it’s common for lawmakers to “vote” even when
they’re not on the floor, it has sometimes been taken to uncommon lengths.

In 1992, Rep. Wyvetter Younge, D-East St. Louis, managed to cast 80
votes while she was in Baltimore. After the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed the
activity, Younge blamed House Speaker Michael Madigan and his staff for not
ensuring her voting switch wasn’t used while she was away.

Even earlier,
legislators sometimes jammed paperclips into their voting switches so they would
be recorded as “yes” on every roll call. A picture of then-Rep. Timothy
Johnson using a paperclip drew attention to the practice in 1980 and it soon
ended. Johnson’s constituents kept re-electing him and in 2000 sent him to
Congress despite an opponent resurrecting the issue.

Voting for
colleagues who are gone for a few minutes usually goes smoothly because it’s
almost always clear how everyone will vote on a bill. Either everyone will vote
“yes” or Democrats will vote one way and Republicans will vote the other. It’s
not hard for a legislator to know how a colleague wants to vote.

Former
Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, said that if there is any doubt about an
important bill, lawmakers will often tell colleagues how to vote for them while
they’re away. Other lawmakers choose to lock their voting switches when they’re
off the floor so that no one else can use them.

Black noted that if
lawmakers believe there is something fishy about the votes cast to pass a bill,
they can always demand a “verification.” That gives opponents a chance to
determine whether everyone recorded as voting is present. They can eliminate the
votes of anyone who isn’t actually in the room. Quinn’s legislative allies did
not take this step on the vote that triggered his anger.

Black said he
suspects Quinn is speaking out because he lost, not because of deep concerns
about lawmakers voting for one another.

“To say that shouldn’t go on is
technically true,” Black said, “but it’s been going on since time
immemorial.”

Copyright Associated Press

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