State lawmakers wrangle over whether to post voting records onlineThe South Dakota Legislature has spent 85 years recording its legislators’ voting records. A freshman representative is now working to make sure the public has better online access to every vote cast.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
The South Dakota Legislature has spent 85 years recording its legislators’ voting records. A freshman representative is now working to make sure the public has better online access to every vote cast.
Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, became concerned with voting records after a smokeout vote was not published on the status page for House Bill 1198, which pertained to businesses employing illegal immigrants. A smokeout is designed to advance a failed or stalled bill out of the committees and onto the full Senate or House floor.
“The voters have a right to know how I voted on one of their biggest concerns,” Nelson said.
Currently, the legislative website, http://legis.state.sd.us, has a page for each piece of legislation. Final committee and House or Senate votes are displayed on that page, as are votes on amendments. But the pages do not list every single procedural vote related to the legislation, and there is no way to view an individual legislator’s entire voting record without looking up every single piece of legislation.
Nelson wants all votes to be posted. He also envisions a link to comprehensive voting records on each legislator’s profile. The link would state how the legislator voted on each bill, the bill number, title and a link to the online status page of the bill.
“I would also like to see a comprehensive voting record spreadsheet of the full House and full Senate so that voters can see directly how their elected officials voted on every issue,” he said.
This, too, would include the bill number, name and a link to the status page.
After the final vote on the HB 1198 smokeout was not posted on the bill status page, Nelson contacted Jim Fry at the Legislative Research Council, who had the votes posted. But, shortly after, the votes “mysteriously disappeared,” Nelson said.
“The story behind this is the intentional hiding of controversial votes of representatives during several smokeouts that were first omitted from the state website, placed on there after I complained, then unceremoniously taken down later to again hide the votes from the public eye,” Nelson wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Republic.
Fry said he had the smokeout vote placed on the bill status page before he knew the LRC had a policy against placing procedural votes there.
“I did it on the fly and put one vote up,” he said. “Then I learned a policy had been set before that votes that didn’t change the status of the bill shouldn’t be posted, so we didn’t do that anymore. It was an error. Nobody wanted to hide anything.”
Nelson wants to see votes on every aspect of every issue placed on the site, which would allow the public to see how and where a bill or resolution died, and how legislators voted. The only vote currently recorded on the website for HB 1198 is the State Affairs Committee’s vote to defer the bill to the 41st day of the legislative session, which is “a polite way of tabling the bill,” Nelson said.
“Several weeks later I found out that the online bill status was changed to erroneously reflect that the last action to the bill was the committee recommendation to deferral to the 41st day, and all information of the results of the major action to the bill by the full House on Feb. 16 was removed,” Nelson wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Republic.
Nelson said the actual final disposition of HB 1198, which is not shown on the bill’s status page, was a House roll call vote not to smoke it out of committee. The page only shows the committee vote to defer it to the 41st legislative day.
Fry said all votes are posted in the House and Senate journals, which is where the smokeout vote is posted.
“There are no votes that are hidden, they’re just in different places,” Fry said.
He cited again that the decision to place votes that only apply to the final outcome of the bill was made before he became the LRC director. He added that all votes recorded on either floor will always be recorded in the House and Senate floor and committee journals, which are available online but must be scrolled through manually to find any specific information.
“Clearly, when you have the full House voting on the life or death of this bill, that’s a big action on the bill and the people have a right to know,” Nelson said.
Fellow legislator Rep. Charles Turbiville, R-Deadwood, views Nelson’s efforts to enhance the website as a waste of time and resources.
Turbiville is chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board, which is responsible for the activities of the Legislature in the offseason. He said final votes are the only ones that count, and other votes — such as smokeouts — don’t need to be easily accessible on the website.
“The problem is, he’s not following proper procedure,” Turbiville said. “Being a former military individual, I’m surprised he’s not following the chain of command.”
Turbiville said every other legislator who wants to change the legislative process goes through the Legislative Procedure Committee, which Nelson never approached and to which Turbiville referred Nelson several times, Turbiville said.
Turbiville said he sees no point in Nelson’s attempts to improve the legislative website. He said links on each legislator’s profile to the bills and resolutions they vote on “will not move people faster through the website.”
“The website, as it currently exists, does everything that we want it to,” he said. “The website allows an individual to pull up any bill and determine where it is in the process, and it also indicates how each individual votes.”
Nelson argues the legislative website confuses constituents and does not provide legislators’ votes on every issue. However, Turbiville said the site provides all final votes on all bills and resolutions.
“This year there were 105 legislators with 575 bills and resolutions,” Turbiville said. “Citing the way they voted on each one, that is a huge undertaking.”
Nelson recently received an estimate of 44 man hours and $2,200 from the Legislative Research Council to revise the website per his wishes. The e-mail, from LRC Director Jim Fry, stated the work could be done internally or by a Bureau of Information Technology programmer.
Nelson said he had a hard time getting research for his proposal to enhance the website. So, when he was invited to present his idea to the Legislative Procedures Committee, he did not have the proper information he needed.
“I asked the LRC for information and Turbiville said not to provide it,” Nelson said. “If they don’t give me the material to present, I can’t present.”
In the meantime, he’s gathering support from fellow legislators “the old-fashioned way.” He plans to bring the idea to the Legislature when it begins the 2012 session in January.
Turbiville said the number of visits to the site proves it isn’t cumbersome. During the 2011 session, in January, he said the legislative website had 262,876 visitors and more than 7.19 million hit. In February, more than 263,000 people visited the site and it received more than 9.6 million hits. A hit is a request for physical resources from the server, such as text or images — so each click on an image is a hit. Once a person is on a website, it counts as one visit no matter how many pages the person visits on that site.
“Does that sound like a website that’s hard to access? Absolutely not,” Turbiville said.
“It is never a waste of time and money to provide services to taxpayers for them to see how their elected representatives vote,” he said.
He said his bottom line is that the U.S. is based on open government. If the Legislature starts allowing curtains to be closed, it is allowing corruption to occur, he added.
Although all votes are recorded and accessible on the Legislature’s website, Nelson said that they are difficult to access, being in several different spots. He maintains his revisions to the site would enhance accessibility.
“These simple changes I would like to see enacted would help bring a spotlight to voting records,” Nelson said. “Why make the public have to dig?”
Although he admires Nelson’s ambition, Turbiville said Nelson must follow legislative procedure to change the way the Legislature conducts business.
“He cannot make these changes by demanding the members of the LRC for the changes, and we as the Executive Board cannot make these changes,” Turbiville said.
Nelson said he simply asked for information from the LRC and didn’t demand the council change the site.
“What is wrong with making votes available to the public?” Nelson said. “The public’s not going to agree with every vote I made, but they have a right to know how I voted.”
Turbiville’s attitude remains fixed.
“Bottom line, if he feels so intense about changing the way we’ve voted for 85 years, about the way we record the votes and about a new website, he needs to go through legislative procedure, just like anyone else,” Turbiville said.