Rules v. spirt (not to mention fairness)

Last week, the Roanoke Times published a short opinion piece by VCOG's Chip Woodrum Legislative Intern, Zhina Kamali. It's republished here on our website.

Kamali wrote about her first encounter in a General Assembly committee meeting where bills were killed by an unrecorded voice vote. Among other things, she noted how members fairly shouted their ayes and nays, which led her to wonder, "Are we at the GAB or at a concert where the band with the loudest crowd wins?"

She also proposed a radical solution: "Let’s count these votes exactly the same way as we do when bills are being reported."

As Kamali recognized, the practice of allowing bills to fail without a recorded vote goes against our notion of representative democracy. Our elected officials vote on legislation that affects us. Our elected officials answer to us. Our elected officials owe us a record of their votes.

Letting a bill die without recording the vote does two things: First, it gives those who want to kill a bill coverage from any backlash because he/she doesn't have to take responsibility for it, and second, it robs those who have the opposite position the right to go on record with their support.

To be clear, this is not a partisan issue. Though the current chairs of the committees in the Virginia House are Republicans, every Republican and Democratic member can object to this process. Any member can make a motion that would require a recorded vote.

Such motions are not uncommon. For non-controversial bills, motions are made to report (that is, to advance), and the bill nonetheless dies. Those votes are recorded. It's typically the controversial bills, then, that get the voice-vote treatment.

All of which brings me to a letter to the editor in The Roanoke Times today from a member of the Roanoke County unit of the National Association of Parliamentarians. The letter writer admonished Kamali about apparently not knowing about proper rules and procedure in the House of Delegates.

Kamali, along with other interns, may want to review the Constitution of Virginia, the Rules of the House of Delegates and the Rules of the Senate. These documents are tedious reading. There are several different methods of voting and rules concerning division of the house, appeal to the chair, and other extenuating circumstances.

The rules, the letter continues, "have come down to us through the ages and eventually became codified." In conclusion, the letter states,

April is Parliamentary Procedure month. May we take this opportunity to appreciate, respect and become more aware of these rules that make up a democratic society. May we all become more responsible members in the groups of which we are members by knowing and practicing the rules.

I love rules. My life is FOIA, for goodness sake, which is one big giant rule. Rules are good. Rules provide certainty.

But rules, even procedureal ones, are not immutable. Even if they have come to us through the ages (which sounds a bit too much like Moses was involved), they have changed over the years. In fact, this process of allowing unrecorded voice votes seems to have begun in earnest in 2006. And the rules for each chamber of the General Assembly can be changed every single year. There is nothing to say they can't change again, and Kamali's piece is a call to action for why they should.

Further, rules are not particularly worthy of our slavish devotion to them when they are applied inconsistently. As noted above, only some bills are given the treatment (from 0% of bills defeated in some committees, to up to 39% of bills in other committees, according to some preliminary estimates of data from Legislative Information Systems). Is this procedural rule one that should be given unquestioning acceptance by the public?

Kamali says no and recommends a new rule: record votes. The current procedure isn't working, not in practice, and not for the ultimate good of the democratic society the letter writer purports to defend.

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