State Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, said Wednesday he was bushwhacked last week by Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 when a reporter suddenly appeared from behind a partition and quizzed him on why his “seat mate” had been casting votes for him in his absence and vice versa.
Ford “clocked in” Rep. Dennis Roach, R-Rutledge, and then repeatedly voted for him. Roach cast a dozen votes that session without ever stepping foot in the chambers, and when he showed up late Ford cleared his desk and left for the night, according to the news report.
“She just jumped out from behind a corner and stuck a microphone in my face,” Ford said Wednesday about the reporter. “It pissed me off. I thought it was very unprofessional.”
Ford said he understood why some people might think the voting procedures could be construed as unethical. But he also said there are times — more times than people know — when the House rules regarding attendance and voting procedures are suspended, making these actions both legal and ethical.
“If a guy is not going to be there, I won’t clock them in or vote for them,” he said. “That’s stealing. When we’re under the rules, I absolutely follow them to the letter.”
The rules provide for orderly proceedings and determine how the Senate and House will conduct business. Frequently, a legislator will move to “suspend the rules” to speed the flow of business, but at least two-thirds of the members must agree to the suspension.
“That’s an accepted practice,” he said. “And even when you’re in the well (podium), somebody has to vote for you. Everybody down there, everybody that’s ever been there, and everybody that ever will be there is going to do it. Sometimes the Sergeant at Arms will tell you there’s someone in the lobby. Sometimes you may be talking with the governor. We’re out from under the rule most of the time. I don’t think people realize.”
He also said members will, from time to time, clock in during the electronic roll call for other members when they are running late. Some legislators have begun using “voting sticks” to help them reach their neighbors’ desks.
“I’d love for more people to come down to Nashville and see what’s going on,” he added.
Ford, who makes $19,000 per year plus a per diem of $173 each day for the days present at a session, said Republican House Speaker Beth Hartwell has not contacted him regarding voting misdeeds.
Jo Ann Fernstrom, a Telford resident served by Ford, questioned his actions after viewing the report. Though she had no information about the workings of House rules at the time, she was upset that the practice of casting votes for absent members was going on. She also said she will be talking with fellow constituents who question the legality of this practice.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, called Ford “an honest guy” and said the Senate also practices similar rules and procedures.
“For example, if you know you’re going to be in session but will need to leave in the afternoon, you go tell the clerk,” Crowe said. “If I’m not going to be there on a certain day, should I have someone vote for me? No. But if I have to go to the bathroom, I’ll tell my seat mate how I want to vote.”
He said in other situations, you go up to the clerk and tell them, “vote me yes.”
“In the Senate, you either tell the clerk and the speaker beforehand that you will not be in attendance,” he said. “You also need to make sure there is not a reason that you absolutely must be there. Basically, you get permission. And if you don’t, they are not happy. We’d be called in.”
On Tuesday, the last day of the session, Crowe was not in attendance due to a family member’s graduation.
“In this case, I was marked ‘not present,’ and in this case no one should vote for me,” he said. “Now if I have to get up and head to the back of the room, I can put my thumb up to indicate which way I intend to vote. Also, when roll is called, members press a blue light. If you come in late, you go tell the clerk you’re now present.”
Crowe said Senate rules traditionally are suspended during the final days of the session and that having just a third of the number of members as the House makes communication a bit easier.