Sunday, March 06, 2005

Proving a Negative

This matter of ghost voting has been troubling me. How do I know if my legislator is actually showing up for work? There are two key data points to have in order to check. One, you need to know when the legislator was NOT in Harrisburg. Two, you need to find out if the legislator voted that day. In a previous post I listed state representatives who were hoping to win state senate seats in this spring’s special election. I decided to pick one of those as the sample in this attempt to learn the wily ways of state government. Leanna Washington drew the short straw. (As a truth in advertising comment, let me note that she is not my state representative.)

First off, how to find out when she was not in Harrisburg? I am what professional campaigners scornfully refer to as a “googling monkey.” I have some skill with a search engine and put that skill to use and found three specific dates when I could verify that Rep. Washington was out of town. On February 26, 2000, she was in Los Angeles to receive the Citizens Commission on Human Rights Award. On June 22, 2000, she was in Washington, D.C. for an Ad Hoc Democratic Party Platform Meeting. (The site I found this on is no longer active but I found a cached copy for There may be other places currently hosting the information.) On December 3, 2003 she was in Houston Texas, for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators conference. The general assembly’s website has a calendar with historical information on it. A number of bills were signed into law on June 22, 2000.

Part two of this experiment involves checking to see if she voted those days. In the previous posting on ghost voting I mentioned that the state general assembly’s web site did not list who voted or how. There isn’t an information phone number listed on the site so I queried the webmaster. He (or she) replied with the following:

The House Bipartisan Management Committee and Senate Committee on Management Operations are responsible for approving information for release on the site. At this time, they have not approved that information.

You can call the House Chief clerk and/or Secretary of the Senate for copies of roll call votes. Also, roll calls are published in the Official House Journal and Official Senate Journal, available at many public and university libraries (but not online)

I also found a well-designed and informative website hosted by the Widener University School of Law giving detailed procedure for tracking legislation in Pennsylvania, entitled Pennsylvania: Compiling a Legislative History. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning how to track legislation on a particular topic.

A quick check of area library catalogs showed one that had the House Journal (it’s not as easy as you might think – some catalogs listed it as the House Journal, others as the Legislative Journal, others as something else). Off I went. Unfortunately the House Journal showed no legislative activity on any of the 3 dates I had. What gives??!!! Back to the general assembly website to check the calendar for the June 22, 2000 legislation. Picking one of the bills at random I pulled up the bill history. The date the bill becomes a law is the day the governor signs it, not the day it passed the house or senate – it is usually voted on a week or two earlier.

Curses, foiled again!!! Of course, it is still possible to track days legislators are verifiably out of town and then checking the House Journal to see if there was any activity or voting on that day but it is a cumbersome process. Proving a negative (that someone didn’t do something, as opposed to proving that they did) is always a difficult, if not impossible task. Walking through this exercise did teach me about the House Journal and the Senate Journal, which will allow me to keep closer tabs on my legislator and what the general assembly is doing. So it was well worth the effort.

What we, as voters, might do is lobby to have voting data made more easily available. No doubt there are plenty of people in the state who don’t have easy access to the journals. In any event, Rep. Washington is, as far as I can tell, in the clear.

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