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Reeder: Legislators should care enough to cast their own votes

SPRINGFIELD – For the life of me, I’ll never understand why lawmakers are too lazy to push their own voting buttons.

After all, that’s what we pay them to do: vote on our behalf.

In 1988 when I first covered the Illinois General Assembly, a lawmaker proudly pulled a 7-foot-long piece of No. 9 wire from under his desk and showed me he could not only vote for himself, but also use his wire stick to press the voting buttons on all the empty desks around him – without even getting up from his chair.

The practice of lawmakers having others operate their voting button is not only commonplace – in Illinois, it’s expected.

The Statehouse press corps has pretty much stopped reporting on the practice. After all, it has been going on for generations.

If you are surprised by this, it’s because you haven’t watched more than five minutes of the Illinois House of Representatives in action.

If you have, you’ve witnessed chaos.

Lawmakers are milling about, folks are gabbing, pages scurrying, secretaries are lugging files, and no one seems to be paying attention to whoever is speaking about a particular bill.

When it’s time to vote, often “lawmakers” don’t bother to walk back to their desks. They expect their buddies sitting nearby to press their voting button. If not another lawmaker, a staffer or whoever else is handy will end up pushing the button.

It’s a routine practice by members of both political parties.

And it shows a cavalier disregard for the solemnity of the process.

When I covered the Nevada Legislature for one of the Las Vegas newspapers, I’d share stories of the voting antics of their counterparts in Illinois.

Legislators there would give me perplexed looks, because they viewed pushing their own voting button as their civic duty.

Every few years there will be a Statehouse tempest that the outcome of a particular vote would have been different if only all the lawmakers were pushing their own buttons.

Such was the case in 2011 when about 20 Democratic lawmakers were off the Illinois House floor attending one of the day’s three scheduled budget briefings and the ComEd “Smart Grid trailer bill,” a bill that would raise electric rates, was called up for a vote.

Even though the lawmakers weren’t in the chamber, someone pushed their voting buttons and votes were cast on their behalf – and the bill passed.

According to media reports at the time, this is what Gov. Pat Quinn, who opposed the bill, had to say:

“The people of Illinois, I think, back home, if they hear that their legislator was letting some staff member vote their switch, or somebody next door to them who wasn’t elected by the people back home, this is not right,” Quinn said. “And the legislators know this.”

Quinn is right.

And yet this type of monkey business continues.

Is it asking too much for legislators to cast their own votes?

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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