Oklahoma City_Being a state representative is one of the most important jobs in the government, so important that the voters get to decide who gets the job. For more than three months every year, Oklahoma House members play a pivotal role in writing state laws, distributing tax dollars, and deciding how government agencies should operate. So, what would you think if your representative was not casting his or her own vote, opting to let another member vote for them instead?
There is no doubt that the Oklahoma House is a busy place. With more than one hundred members, each casts hundreds - if not thousands - of votes every year. Their number one goal is to never miss a vote, but would they break rules in order to do so? Sometimes House rules allow it, but after a state representative from McAlester was caught breaking the rules, it shed new light on the longstanding practice.
From high above the House gallery, 7News spent an afternoon carefully watching members vote. One representative uses a metal rod to press the voting button for his desk mate, while another member votes for himself, and then leans over to vote for another member. Are they breaking the rules? "The rules state that a member has to be visible in the chamber and get the presiding officer's attention - or to get another members attention - in order to cast a vote," says Tim Talley with the Associated Press.
7News was unable to verify if the members we saw others voting for were in the chamber or not, and Talley caught one representative red-handed. "Some members were voting for a member who appeared not to be in the chamber at the time the vote was being taken," said Talley. He watched it four times, and went to the office of Representative Terry Harrison of McAlester's office. "I jiggled the handle and knocked, and got no answer," he said. "As I was walking back down the hall, the door pops open and Harrison emerges from his office."
Harrison told Talley he was on his way to the chamber gallery to inform the members of how he wanted to vote. "He was behind a closed and locked door when these votes were being taken," said Talley. Harrison chose not to comment, but two other local members did. "I don't think this is a major thing that happens a lot," said Representative Don Armes from Faxon. "I think it does happen occasionally. You know, it's just a wake up call for some of the members who may be a little lax. I think the rules are very effective - they must be followed."
During the course of an afternoon, 7News even saw Lawton Representative Ann Coody vote for her desk mate. "A fellow member was sitting in a seat a couple of rows in front of me, turned and asked me to vote for him, and indicated how he wanted me to vote," she said. "I turned around and voted for him, which is perfectly legal and frequently done. The expectation for somebody being at their desk the whole time we're in session is unrealistic because constituents will come up and want to see them, and they'll have to pull them off the floor, or even reporters will want to talk to them about different issues and have to pull them off the floor," said Coody.
As long as the Representative makes it back to the House Chamber before a vote is closed, the practice is acceptable. But, if they don't, Coody says the integrity of the voting process is tarnished. "You don't get to vote by being somewhere else, you have to be in the chamber."
House members can be punished - or even expelled - for breaking the rules, and although that hasn't happened recently, after Representative Harrison was caught, House leaders issued a warning to all members. The rules in the Oklahoma Senate are similar, except that senators cannot signal their votes from the gallery.