‘Ghost voting’ may not be as spooky as it may sound

Robert Houk • May 7, 2012 at 9:36 AM

Last week we all became a bit more familiar with “ghost voting,” but not the kind of spooky election fraud that most might think of. When I hear someone talk about ghost voting, I immediately think of the corpses that have supposedly crawled out of their graves on Election Day to mark ballots in big cities like Chicago and Memphis.

In this case, however, ghost voting is what happens when a member of the Tennessee General Assembly votes for another representative who doesn’t happen to be in the chamber at the time. This practice came to light recently with the help of a news report on a Nashville TV station. WTVF aired a story two weeks ago about lawmakers in the House casting electronic votes for other legislators who are away from their desks.

The report gained traction in our area because one of the lawmakers profiled in the story was Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough. Ford was filmed by the station repeatedly voting for his absent desk mate, Rep. Dennis Roach, R-Rutledge, during that day’s legislative calendar. Roach later arrived to do his own voting.

When Ford was asked about the practice by a NewsChannel 5 reporter, Ford dismissed the whole thing as nothing out of the ordinary. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” Ford tersely told Jennifer Kraus. “It’s done all of the time.”

Ford was much more blunt in explaining his reaction to the TV reporter last week during an interview with Press staff Writer Gary B. Gray.

“She just jumped out from behind a corner and stuck a microphone in my face,” Ford said Wednesday. “It pissed me off. I thought it was very unprofessional.”

Nonetheless, the incident has left many people wondering if Ford and his other ghost voting colleagues are breaking some rule or law. The simple answer is: No, not unless such ghost votes were cast when the House was “under the rule.”

Ford also told me last week he would never think of voting a member present who had no intention of showing up that day. “That would be stealing,” said Ford, who as a former Major League umpire, has seen stealing before. In fact, doing so would be like falsifying a timecard. Members of the General Assembly get paid an annual salary of $19,000, in addition to a $173 per diem. If a member is not present for a floor session, he or she is not eligible for that day’s paycheck.

For the most part, the House conducts its business very casually and very loudly. The first time I covered a floor session of the Tennessee Legislature, I couldn’t believe that government could actually function amid such chaos. There are 99 members of the House, and few of them can remain silent — much less stay seated — for more than 5 minutes.

Generally, the rules of the House are suspended so that members can leave their desks during floor sessions to take care of personal matters, such as bathroom breaks and meeting outside the chambers with constituents, as well as talking to other lawmakers about amendments to upcoming bills. It is during these times that a legislator might ask the person who sits beside him to push one of the voting buttons on his desk while he is away.

I recall seeing this several times myself while covering the General Assembly in the 1990s. (I remember watching former Rep. Jim Holcomb, R-Blountville, use a long stick to vote for himself and former Rep. Alan Hubbard, R-Kingsport.)

Reporters were technically supposed to remain in our designated areas, and not wandering the floor during session. I never violated that rule, but my colleagues and I would test the House speaker’s patience by standing at the outside walkways of the chamber and inviting members to come to us.

I never got bounced by a House sergeant at arms for doing this, but I do recall getting an icy stare from then House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh during one impromptu sidelines interview that went on too long.

During debate on more serious matters, members often ask the speaker of the House to go “under the rule.” With a quick bang of a gavel, the speaker advises that every member must be at his or her own desk in order to cast a vote. Thus a ghost vote at this time would be a violation of the House rules.

So Ford is correct when he says that he has not violated any House rules, and that the practice has been going on for many decades. Even so, ghost voting is an issue that has come up in other states. A few years ago, good government advocates said ghost voting in the California Assembly could open the door to mischief and deception.

In Texas, lawmakers there decided in 2008 to install specially designed equipment to prevent ghost voting. After spending $130,000 to develop fingerprint voting scanners, the equipment was locked away in storage in 2011. It seems Texas legislators didn’t think they had a problem after all. Now that’s spooky.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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