State Assembly members altered their votes on legislation more than 5,000 times in the past year, according to a new analysis published Wednesday by The Associated Press.
Assembly rules let members add their vote to a bill if they were absent for the actual floor vote or chose to abstain. It also allows them to change a vote cast during the formal voting period. Members must make the change on the same day of the floor vote, and their after-the-fact vote cannot change the outcome of the original vote.
Critics say the practice allows lawmakers to mislead their constituents by changing the official record of how they acted on specific pieces of legislation.
Southern California members were among the most prolific vote-amenders, led by Assemblyman Tony Mendoza. The Norwalk Democrat said that adding a vote after initially abstaining — which he did more than 200 times in the past session — is quite different from changing a vote that has already been cast.
Mendez said weighing in after the fact is a necessary tactic legislators use to make sure they are casting informed votes. He said that when legislative deadlines loom, deals are made quickly, and a bill that goes to a floor vote could contain something very different from when it was introduced.
"They put a bill up and you say, 'What is that?' It's something you've never seen before," Mendoza said. "You're not going to vote on a bill you don't know."
The vast majority of Assembly vote alterations were add-in votes rather than outright changes. Of more than 5,000 altered votes, about 200 were actual vote changes, where the member goes up to the podium to announce a switch.
Adding in a vote, which is a much more discreet process, is a sure way for legislators to get on the winning side of a bill, according to UC San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser. Legislators increasingly do what Kousser calls “taking a walk...stragetically making themselves absent so they can see how an issue is going to shake out before they decide whether they want to stick their necks out."
Kousser says legislators in competitive districts who have the most to lose are doing the most after-the-fact voting: "Because that’s when a tough vote that’s not exactly what their constituents want, or that is against what a vocal minority in their district wants — that’s when it’s going to cost them the most and that’s when they are most likely to take advantage of this voting rule in California."
Of 10 Southern California Assembly members contacted by KPCC for comment on vote-changing, only Mendoza — who is leaving the Assembly and returning to elementary school teaching after serving the maximum three terms — agreed to a recorded interview.
As Assembly Speaker, with great influence on the flow of bills to the floor, John Perez added-in very few votes — just six in the past year. His spokesman John Vigna sent a statement saying the vote-change rules "Give members the flexibility they need to best represent the views of the men and women of their communities."