Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

California legislators can change voting records after bills have passed or failed

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In a closely contested state Senate campaign, Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani has been urging voters to judge her on her legislative achievements, saying on her website that she is "proud to have a record of standing up for the people of my district." 

Voters who try to examine the record of the Central Valley Democrat may come away with the wrong impression.

They would not be able to tell that Galgiani remained silent during 136 votes, adding her vote to those pieces of legislation only after the bills had already passed or failed.

Nor would they see that she voted against a welfare to work bill supported by her party and voted for the establishment of a new school efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction fund. The reason: She changed her votes after the fact on both bills.

Her opponent in the 5th Senate District race, Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, also did it, although less frequently. He added his vote to legislation that had already passed or failed 47 times this year and changed his vote twice.

"I try not to make it a practice," he said. "I don't think you want to play too many games up there. You should pretty much be making decisions before you get to the floor."

Galgiani's legislative office referred inquiries on the subject to her campaign manager, Tom Lawson, who declined a request for comment from The Associated Press.

Those votes are among the 5,000 vote changes or additions made during this year's legislative session by lawmakers in the state Assembly, according to an analysis by the AP. Critics say the practice allows lawmakers to mislead their constituents by changing the official record of how they acted on specific pieces of legislation. (Members from Southern California were among the most prolific practitioners.) 

The analysis, based on the AP's own tracking of every Assembly vote cast in 2012, revealed a number of patterns, including:

  • Lawmakers running for a new seat in November were the most likely to switch their votes. Of the top 15 vote changers, 11 are seeking a new office outside of the Assembly. Of the 15 lawmakers who switched votes least often, 11 plan to stay put, although every member of the Assembly must run for their seats again this year.
  • Lawmakers regularly changed their votes on bills dealing with powerful lobbies or hot-button social issues. Among the bills that generated the most action after-the-fact were AB1963, which would have required the state to look into extending the sales tax to services, and AB1166, which would have prevented schools from including students' test scores on their ID cards and was supported by teachers unions.
  • Republicans, the minority party in both houses of the Legislature, switched their votesat more than twice the rate as Democrats. GOP lawmakers accounted for about 65 percent of the 220 vote switches, although they make up just 35 percent of the Assembly.

See how your representative voted below:

Vote-Switching Spreadsheet 2

All lawmakers in California's 80-member Assembly are allowed to change or add votes after the fate of a bill has been decided an unlimited number of times, as long as it does not change the outcome of whether a bill passes or fails. The state Senate allows such changes only by the Democratic and Republican leaders in that house. 

California is one of at least 10 state legislative bodies nationwide in which some lawmakers can amend their votes.

Galgiani was among the top 10 lawmakers to add or switch their votes after the official tally. Other lawmakers who are running for office this year were among the most frequent vote-changers, including Democratic state Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who is running for a congressional seat. He changed his vote 144 times, more than twice the average rate. 

Some of this year's most contentious bills drew unusually high numbers of vote changes or additions once they had been voted up or down.

Examples include AB1761, legislation related to setting up California's health care exchange, part of the federal health care overhaul, and AB1707, which will allow certain people who had been designated as child abusers when they were minors to have their names removed from a state registry.

In the case of the child-abuse bill, lawmakers of both parties may have feared the soft-on-crime label if they voted for it. In the end, most appeared to agree with its author that the change was a common-sense fix that would lift a tremendous burden from people who had been unfairly placed on the list, including foster kids who had gotten into fights.

The official tally shows 64 of the 80 Assembly members voted for the legislation. But when the bill was on the floor of the Legislature, so many members avoided voting that it passed by just a single vote, with 41 ayes.

Bob Stern, the former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said average voters have no idea their representatives reverse positions on bills or can add a "yes" or "no" vote after the legislation had been decided. The information is difficult to piece together, especially for vote additions.

"They're counting on nobody watching," he said.

The AP tracked each vote made in this year's session by manually entering them into a database using information that is recorded in the Assembly's daily file. All 80 Assembly members added or changed votes on at least one of the 1,100 bills that came to the floor this year, but some did so more than 100 times.

Some lawmakers say the vote changing is a sign of absentmindedness, such as when they accidentally vote the wrong way, follow others in their party without carefully examining legislation or misunderstand the intent of a bill. Others note that they are sometimes unable to be on the floor when legislation comes up for a vote and want to add their voice for or against it later.

"It's one of those things where your heart and your head are in conflict," said Assemblyman Das Williams, explaining why he pushed the "yes" button for a hotly debated farmworkers rights bill, then took his name off the official vote count after the legislation fell short of passage in August.

The Santa Barbara Democrat said his heart was with the laborers – he voted yes the first time the proposal came to the floor – but his head was with the farmers in his district who had lobbied him to oppose AB1313, which would have entitled agricultural laborers to overtime pay.

In the midst of that confusion, he said, his finger slipped and he accidentally hit the "yes" button during the final vote.

That particular bill drew 26 additions from Assembly members after the official vote. 

Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward, who is seeking a seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in November, altered her vote more than any other member of the Assembly. 

She failed to vote on legislation 291 times and then changed the record afterward to reflect a "yes" vote nearly every time. Hayashi's chief consultant, Ross Warren, declined to directly address her voting record.

"She's always recorded a vote," he said. "She's never missed a day of work."

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