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Ethics/Government Transparency

Running Away From A Vote

By David Ferguson

Have you ever been in an awful meeting and wanted to get out? The question is how to escape without drawing attention to yourself or making people mad that you bailed out on them? Perhaps you thought, – “I’ll look at my cell phone as if I just got an important call and need to go outside to talk, and then I’ll keep going right to my car.

Politicians are no different. Sometimes a politician wants out of a meeting to keep from having to take a stand on an issue.

Thanks to more legislative meetings being covered by cameras (either cameras run by the state legislature or one of the many cell phone cameras used by the public) the public sometimes gets to see a legislator in full panic mode running away from a vote.

I wish someone had had a video camera to record one of the tales of an escaped legislator. The tale occurred over twenty years ago. Since the tale was told to me by his seatmate, I’ll just call the state representative, “Representative T.

Representative T was in a House committee meeting and a bill he cosponsored came up on the agenda. He had given his word to some constituents that he would support the bill, but he had a problem.  His county judge and mayor had made the long drive down to Little Rock to oppose the bill… and they were in the room looking right at him.  Representative T wanted to vote for the bill, but he didn’t want to hurt his chances of being reelected by making enemies of his county judge and mayor.

A roll call vote was requested which meant the names of the twenty members would be called.  Representative T was beside himself and asked his seatmate, “What can I do?” His seatmate said, “Well I don’t know….  I guess you could walk out of the room before your name is called.

With only a couple of more names to be call, Representative T dashed out of the committee room but was spotted in the hall by long time capitol reporter Joan Duffy who had stepped out of the committee room and was calling him a “chicken****” for running out.  Seeing Duffy made him scurry even faster but his slick shoes made him fall as he tried to run up the marble stairs. This gave Duffy an opportunity to impart more “wisdom” on the escaping politician.

I wish I had a picture of that Keystone Cops like scene. Sounds hilarious to me. I liked both Duffy and Representative T, both of whom have passed too soon.

On its website, Conduit for Action shared scenes of a couple of legislators running away from votes.  First, was former Representative Scott Baltz in 2013.

Baltz (a Democrat) normally voted pro-life, but in 2013 Governor Mike Beebe put the word out he did not want Democrats voting to override his veto on a pro-life bill.  Most Democrats walked out of the chamber to avoid the vote.  So did Baltz, but Baltz delayed before walking out and he got the attention of everyone in the gallery.  CFA gave a play by play of the worried Baltz fidgeting in his seat with a worried look on his face and then making his way out of the chamber just before the vote.  Baltz compounded the issue by saying he “knew” the veto would be overridden and because of that he left the chamber instead of casting a vote that might anger Governor Beebe, whose support Baltz needed for financial incentives to get a chicken processing plant in his home town. Poor Baltz.  His statement caused some in his own church to claim he was trading chickens for babies.

Second, in 2017 Conduit For Action shared video of Representative James Sturch (now a senator) scurrying out of the House chamber in order to kill an election reform bill.

Sturch had just voted for the bill which would have limited local governments from using special elections to pass tax increases. Lobbyists for local government fought against the bill because it was easier to pass taxes in special elections when voter turnout would be low. The bill initially passed by two votes but someone challenged the vote. The vote of one representative was stricken because he was not in the chamber.  That meant Sturch’s vote would be the deciding vote to pass the bill. That is when Sturch looked at his phone. Was it a text message saying “get out”?  We don’t know … but after looking at his phone Sturch started making his way to the back door.  He managed to exit the chamber just a few seconds before his name was called. That meant his “Yes” vote was stricken, which allowed him to kill the bill.

Over the last two years Sturch has had plenty of time to decide which way to vote on the election bills should the issue come up again this year.  If he is still trying to decide, the good news is – the exits are much closer in the Senate.

Another exit video made the rounds a few years ago.   I watched the video and then read the legislator’s response, but no longer remember the issue or exactly which state Representative made the escape. I’ll call him “Representative M” because I don’t want to attribute the event to the wrong brother.

In the video Representative M is clearly uncomfortable about something as the committee prepares to vote after a long debate.  Shortly before he would have to vote, Representative M gets up and exits. Being absent is the equivalent of a “No” vote because 11 of the 20 of the representatives must vote “Yes” to pass a measure. What made this humorous was his explanation of why he left.  He said he had promised to give a school class from his district a tour of the capitol and it was time to meet them.  So, his excuse was – not being five minutes late to give a tour was a higher priority than voting on an important issue where his vote could potentially change the outcome.

Yes, legislators have … and will continue to run out on votes.  Sometimes it is cowardice or poor priorities, but sometimes walking out is a legitimate political tactic used to shut down a meeting for lack of a quorum in order to give their side more time to drum up support. Occasionally, a legislator must choose whether to stay for an important vote in his committee or to walkout because he has gotten word that his bill is about to be up for consideration in another committee and he doesn’t want his bill delayed to a future date.

Video recording of legislative meetings is very important, and the Senate and House should be congratulated for expanding the number of meetings to be recorded. And “yes.” while the video provides important information, longtime observers will also enjoy some of the humorous/ embarrassing moments caught on video.

I have two pieces of advice for the freshmen members of the Arkansas House of Representatives and Senate.

FIRST, don’t run away from your job – stay and vote “Yes”, “No”, or if you are not sure, vote “Present.” 

SECOND, if you are going to run away, at least don’t wait until the last minute, because you WILL be noticed and you COULD end up in someone’s “FAIL” video.

David Ferguson is a former Director of Arkansas’ Bureau of Legislative Research, having a thirty-two-year career as an attorney for the Arkansas legislature.  After retirement from state service his primary focus has been beef cattle farming. He is also a former officer of Conduit for Action.

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