Lawmakers in California's Assembly will hit the campaign trail this year, touting their votes on all manner of bills. But what they say may not reflect the stand they took when the bill was being debated.
That’s because California is one of at least 10 states in which some lawmakers can change their votes after a bill has passed or failed.
While the original outcome of the bill isn’t altered, the practice gives lawmakers a chance to change their minds, grab some political cover or varnish their official record when they were afraid or unwilling to take a stand on legislation before a vote.
In January and February, state Assembly members used the option more than 400 times, an Associated Press review found.
In Ohio, lawmakers became so concerned about the number of altered votes that they changed their rules to make it more difficult. In North Carolina, the House speaker set a new policy after a colleague changed his vote two weeks after a bill passed.
“They can be accused of flip-flopping and not making up their minds,” said North Carolina Republican state Sen. Tom Apodaca, chairman of the chamber’s Rules Committee. “You put yourself at risk.”
Some lawmakers in California who are among the most prolific users defended the practice. They said they often don’t have time to read legislation before voting or use the rule as a tactic to work with other lawmakers.
Lawmakers sometimes hold out to see if a bill passes or fails because they are angry at a colleague or want to see if they actually vote for their bill before voting on the colleague’s legislation, Democratic Assemblyman Tony Mendoza of Artesia said.
“Sometimes it’s very political,” he said.
In California, Assembly members frequently add their vote to bills that were taken up while they were not on the floor or change their votes after the final tally has been announced in the chamber.
The vote-switching and vote-adding is allowed only in the 80-member state Assembly, and it cannot change whether a bill passes or fails. The 40-member Senate allows only the Democratic and Republican leaders to add their votes, but it is seldom used.
While lawmakers in the Assembly generally accept the use of the rule, legislators in at least nine other states that allow vote changes or additions do not appear to employ it so liberally. Most of the other legislative houses allow lawmakers time to change their votes or delay votes before the final tally is announced, but few lawmakers make changes after the vote is recorded.
One exception is North Carolina, where lawmakers in the legislature can change their recorded votes after the fact.
In the Senate, they must do so on the same legislative day. In the House, there is no time restriction written into the chamber’s operating rules. Last year, members changed their votes more than 400 times, often to account for what they said were genuine mistakes.
Last June, Republican Speaker Pro Tempore Dale Folwell raised eyebrows when he asked to change his vote from yes to no on a contentious consumer finance bill two weeks after it passed. Mr. Folwell said he changed his mind on the bill’s contents.