by Steven Hale
By now, you've probably heard about NewsChannel 5's investigation into "ghost voting" on the House floor. In a story last month, they showed legislators voting for missing desk mates and found that in one case, Democratic Rep. Lois DeBerry was absent an entire day while fellow lawmakers marked her present and voted for her. (DeBerry later asked the House clerk's office to take back her pay for the day she missed.)
At the time, House Speaker Beth Harwell declined Channel 5's requests for comments, but they caught up to her, as seen in the video above, at a groundbreaking ceremony at Middle Tennessee State University. As you'll see, they press her about "ghost voting" under her watch and won't let her off the hook about whether or not she knows about legislators' voting sticks. If you like feeling awkward, here's the full nine-minute interview.
The original story was only a partial revelation. When the House is not operating "under the rule" — and it rarely is — lawmakers don't have to be at their seats and can ask another member to vote for them if they step outside. That doesn't mean there aren't legitimate questions about whether or not that's acceptable to voters, though, so good on Channel 5 for bringing it up.
The issue came up earlier in the session too, when some House members objected to a bill that would allow school board members to participate in meetings via teleconference, despite their own proxy voting practices. I wrote about it for TNReport and asked Rep. Jim Gotto about the apparent contradiction, and WPLN's Joe White brought it up as well.
The news is not that legislators will sometimes step outside for a smoke and have a partner push their button, but that sometimes they don't even show up at all. The standard defense of the partner-voting practice — indeed the defense Gotto gave me — is that lawmakers are still in the building, or even on the floor, but simply not at their desk when they ask someone to vote a certain way for them. But the DeBerry episode refutes that.
Once again, due credit to Channel 5 for the story.
What's curious, though, is the continued focus on the sticks. In their original story, Channel 5 notes that "ghost voting" had become "such a common practice ... that many lawmakers have sticks they use to reach each others' voting buttons." Then they relentlessly press Harwell for an answer on the sticks.
The sticks may be the occasional instrument of "ghost voting," but they are prevalent because legislators don't want to lean forward, ever, even when they're voting for themselves. Frankly, the sticks kind of make sense. The sticks aren't the scandal. To keep asking about them just highlights the fact that TV news crews often parachute into the Capitol for one story, then leave again until the next. If they were there more often, wasting their days away like the ink-stained class, they'd know about the sticks.
But I've buried the lede. The real news last night was the political impotence of the Tennessee Democratic Party, exposed via Twitter. After the Channel 5 Harwell interview ran, the unnamed pilot of the Tenn Dem Twitter machine took to the web to embarrass themselves.
"@speakerharwell is either being dishonest, or is the least observant person in human history...#20years #WhatSticks?" they tweeted, with a link to the story.
Harwell's refusal to acknowledge the sticks is strange, it's true. But let's do the math here. Channel 5 runs a story exposing members of both parties taking part in a questionable practice, the most egregious example of which involves Democrats. This puts Democrats in a tough spot, I guess. They don't want to criticize the practice, since they do it too. They don't want to criticize Harwell's leadership, because that would be a veiled admission of guilt. So, instead, they tweet an elementary joke about Harwell not knowing about the sticks — and in so doing, bring more attention to a story that already makes them look bad.
Dear Pith readers, I have seen the future, and it is very, very red.