by Lowman S. Henry | April 05, 2004

House Ethics Committee investigates ghost voting

When last we checked in with State Representative William Rieger (D-Philadelphia) he was in the midst of a mini-scandal for charging the state $575.00 a month to lease district office space in the basement of a private residence owned by a staff member.

Reiger is in the news again. This time he has admitted to rigging his electronic voting device to cast votes during House sessions while he was actually at his home back in Philadelphia .

It was once observed that “half of life is just showing up.” Unfortunately Rieger, who happens to be the longest serving member of the Pennsylvania House, can’t even get that right. He voted, and got paid a per diem (later returned), and never actually showed up. Rieger’s actions are a clear violation of House rules which require representatives to be present on the floor when casting a vote.

All this has made good fodder for headline writers, so the ghost voting issue has gained enough momentum that the House Ethics Committee has decided to look into the matter. That should be interesting as the Ethics Committee itself has not bothered to show up for work in quite a while. In fact it has been so long since the committee met, its members have been at a loss to remember when the last meeting was held.

To make matters more interesting, Rieger himself is the ranking Democrat on the panel. He will, hopefully recuse himself from the investigation. Not working should not be hard for Rieger, who hasn’t introduced a bill since 1990, nor had one enacted into law since 1983.

The problem of legislators casting votes while not even being in Harrisburg is not a new one. Back in 1991 another Philadelphia legislator, Richard Hayden, created headlines by jamming a paperclip into his voting device thus casting a deciding vote on the largest tax increase in the history of the commonwealth. There was an uproar. After a while it died down and nothing was done. The practice has obviously continued.

State Representative Thomas Stevenson (R-Allegheny) now chairs the House Ethics Committee and has vowed to look into the matter. The committee needs to do more than just “look into” the practice of ghost voting. We’ve heard promise of reforms before. This time the House should adopt procedures to ensure the absentee casting of votes is stopped once and for all.

On the other side of the Capitol dome, the Senate has a similar problem. Senators don’t have to jam paper clips under voting levers because that smaller, supposedly more dignified body casts its votes by roll call. The problem with a roll call vote is that it is very apparent when the member is not actually present. To get around that little issue, the Senate has adopted a clever policy called “legislative leave.” While on “legislative leave” a Senator is counted as being “present,” although he or she is not actually on the Senate floor.

The Commonwealth Foundation researched the practice and found it to be in violation of the state constitution, a sometimes inconvenient document that prevents politicians from doing what they please. The foundation has called upon the Senate to end the unethical, and apparently unconstitutional, practice of “legislative leave” and also require that members actually be present in order to vote.

We have one of the highest paid legislatures in the nation. Legislators receive taxpayer-paid vehicles to drive back and forth to Harrisburg , and taxpayers provide per diem expenses for hotels and meals. For all that, it isn’t asking too much to expect that all our senators and representatives could at least show up for work on session days and cast their votes in person. If they find that to be too much trouble, surely there must be other civic minded citizens ready to volunteer for the job.