Michigan is blessed to have a fairly transparent legislative process. Not that we’ve quite achieved
perfection in this regard; much of the real legislative decision-making actually
happens behind closed doors in party caucuses. But formal voting on bills is not
only open; the "yeas and nays" are promptly reported on the Internet.
The Great Lakes State is
fortunate in another way: It has
MichiganVotes.org, a free Web site that has provided concise, nonpartisan, plain-English descriptions of every legislator’s vote on every bill and amendment since 2001. The database is searchable and
sortable by subject category and keyword, so any citizen can create a "custom
voting record index" for any legislator on any subject.
leveled the information playing field between Capitol insiders and ordinary
All this is in keeping with
Michigan’s tradition of relatively clean and open state government. Final votes
on bills are all recorded, because the state constitution requires it. Most
citizens take this for granted, but they shouldn’t. For example, in Texas,
recorded roll calls are not required, and the "legislative culture" is not to
have them. Theoretically, the Texas Legislature could raise taxes and every
member could plausibly deny voting for it!
That’s an extreme scenario, but other state legislatures have also erected barriers to transparency. These lead to legislative cultures designed to allow lawmakers to evade accountability. Tennessee and Kentucky are examples of states that have taken some measures to expand access to legislative information, but fallen short when it comes to providing key data.
Unlike Texas, these states do require roll calls on final passage votes. That’s nice — but there’s no requirement to publish these on a timely basis. In Kentucky, for example, while journals containing the roll call votes of legislators are published eventually, these may be delayed for months or even years — Kentucky citizens are still waiting for the Spring 2004 legislative journals!
Fortunately, Kentucky has a law similar to the Freedom of Information Act, and legislative roll call votes are not exempted. The House and Senate Clerks will provide copies of individual roll calls as requested on a case-by-case basis. But this can be awkward and time-consuming, especially when votes are coming at a feverish pace during the part-time Legislature’s brief winter session. Plus, citizens who want this information must pay for it!
Such restricted access leads to unfortunate practices. For example, according to Chris Derry, the president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a surprisingly large number of legislators miss each vote in the Bluegrass State. Also, Kentucky legislators are allowed to come back days later and indicate that they have changed their mind on a vote. They can tell folks at home they are on the record as being against a tax hike, even though they voted for it! Indeed, on most bills, some legislators do muddy the water in this fashion.
Also, there is a "tradition" that the Kentucky House and Senate usually vote unanimously to approve bills — even
controversial ones where opposition would be expected. For example,
Kentucky House Bill 267 of 2005 reportedly
increased government spending by the largest margin
in the modern era. One would expect at least a handful of minority-party members
in the Democrat-controlled House to vote "no." Nope — the bill passed, 100-0.
Well, all that is about to
change in Kentucky and Tennessee. By year’s end, the Bluegrass Institute will
have described the entire 2005 session of the Kentucky Legislature on "KentuckyVotes.org," and it will be ready to cover the 2006 session in real time. The huge resulting increase in legislative transparency will end some of those accountability-dodging
For example, when the media
discover the "Missed Votes Report" showing who missed how many and which votes,
many Kentucky legislators will wish they had showed up more. And when electoral
primary challengers start using the site’s easily accessible vote data to expose
the previously opaque records of entrenched "old bull" lawmakers, look for the
"we’re-all-equally-guilty" unanimous vote tradition to join Daniel Boone in the
state’s history books.
In Tennessee, legislators can
breathe easy for another year — but the Tennessee Center for Policy Research is
getting on track to launch TennesseeVotes.org later in 2006. That state is in
even greater need of increased transparency. It is now in the midst of an ethics
crisis brought about by the indictments of five legislators accused of trading
votes for cash.
The Mackinac Center and
MichiganVotes.org are proud to be helping courageous freedom fighters in other
states open up their legislatures to cleansing sunshine. The Mackinac Center
created the "Votes.org" software, and we make it available to other states. As
project manager for
MichiganVotes.org, I recently spent a week in Kentucky and
Tennessee helping reformers there get their vote-tracking sites up and running.
There is a message here for politicians who would like to keep what they do hidden behind closed doors: The time has come for open and accountable government!
Jack McHugh is a legislative analyst for the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in
Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted,
provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.