Ask Bob: From Voice Votes To Roll Calls, How Do Lawmakers Vote At The Statehouse?

Feb 28, 2018

There are three ways at the moment that Vermont House members can vote on a bill or an amendment to a bill. But there's also talk of introducing an electronic voting system that could shake things up in Montpelier.

This topic for Ask Bob — where we put questions to VPR's longtime Statehouse reporter Bob Kinzel — was prompted by a listener named Jean, who emailed: "I think I saw a bill proposing we move to [an] electronic voting system. What are the implications to consider for this question? Time? Money to install? How many other states have it - or, maybe, still do voice votes? Are there any likely changes to voting behavior? What would this change mean to legislators and to citizens?" 

Before we get to how that electronic system could impact how things run at the Statehouse, let's run down the different ways legislators can currently vote:

1. Voice vote

The speaker of the House calls for the "yeas" and the "nays." It's up to her to determine which side has the most votes — though sometimes it is difficult to tell from the voice vote.

2. Division vote

If it's hard to determine which side has the most support with a voice vote, then any member of the House can request a division vote by actually just calling out "division!"

With this method of voting, members stand if they support the bill and they are counted. They sit down, and then the process repeats with opponents of the bill so they can be counted. The speaker then announces the results.

3. Roll call vote

The third method is a roll call vote, which can also be requested by any House member, where each individual representative is asked to call out their vote.

It's a very deliberate process, as there are 150 names to be called. And then the House clerk runs through the list again for any members not present during the original roll call. This whole process can take a little while.

There's also been a new development that's been used more and more lately during roll call votes — when the vote has been tallied but just before it's announced, members have a chance to explain their vote if they want to, and their comments are printed in the House journal for the next day. You might have 10, 20, 30 people who want to explain their vote, and this just adds to the overall time for the roll call.

How much time do roll call votes take up?

There's no question that there have been more roll call votes in the last 10 years. Tallying those up, there are about 80, on average, every year. Three roll calls take an hour. Those 80 roll calls take roughly 27 hours, so that's 3 and a half workdays a year spent just on roll call votes.

Sometimes House leaders request a roll call on a bill to let the Senate know how strongly the House feels about an issue — and the Senate certainly does the same thing. So you might have a House roll call vote of 120-30 and then the Senate has a pretty clear idea about how much support there is for the bill in the House.

But might the Legislature switch to an electronic system?

A number of states and the U.S. House of Representatives use an electronic voting system, and there's legislation that has been introduced to put that sort of system in place at the Vermont Statehouse.

But, try to imagine a huge electronic tote board with 150 names on it in the front of the Vermont House chamber — right above the portrait of George Washington — with green dots for members who voted for a bill and red dots for those who voted against it.

There would likely be opposition and outcry about doing that because of the optics and nontraditional look — there's been a big effort at the Statehouse to restore it and preserve it to the way it has been for the last century.

Would an electronic vote system even save time?

It's a bit complicated. The initial answer is probably yes, it would save time, because if we're talking about the same number of roll calls, then the electronic system would cut that time down. But, would there be more requests for roll calls if the process was more efficient? 

It seems some lawmakers are reluctant to ask for a roll call when the outcome is clearly known, but as our political system becomes more partisan, the political parties use these votes at election time to support or oppose a specific candidate — for example, they put out election fliers with a lawmaker's voting history.

The electronic voting system could generate more roll calls, which could be good for lawmaker accountability, but really may not save any time.

Would it change the way lawmakers vote?

Roll calls do seem to change behavior in some cases.

Here's a sample situation that has unfolded in Montpelier: A voice vote is really close; too close for the speaker to determine. Then the subsequent division vote can also seem very close, so someone will call "roll call" — that can happen until the time when the division vote is announced. Then when the roll call tally is finally announced, the bill passes by perhaps a 2-1 margin.

So this example shows there are times when going on the record with a roll call vote can seemingly change the outcome of the issue. It probably doesn't happen all that often, but it does happen.

A final prediction on electronic voting

Between the historic preservation considerations, the fact it might not save time if there are more roll call votes and that there are people who feel strongly that the roll call tradition is part of the Vermont legislative process, don't bet on a switch to the electronic system anytime soon.

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Want more answers from Bob? Check out our previous installment of Ask Bob about the governor's two-year term.