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Empty Seat Voting Returns To State Assembly

Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, argues against Assembly rules changes allowing empty seat voting.

Empty seat voting is back in the state Assembly.

A resolution filed late Friday by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and not included on the Assembly calendar for Monday’s session available to the public Monday morning was passed by the Assembly on Monday in a party line vote. E.87 sets several operational rules for the Assembly’s session this year. Among its changes is increasing the number of fast roll call votes, which allow lawmakers who aren’t available to physically cast votes to have their vote automatically cast in favor of a bill as long as they are signed in to the Assembly’s vote-casting system.

Peoples-Stokes said it will be up to voters to make sure Assembly members aren’t signing into the system and then leaving the chamber without actually voting or listening to floor debate.

“I think the people they’re representing might prevent that,” she said. “I believe they would (prefer their representative be on the floor) and I believe if they have asked for their people’s vote in an earnest and honest way they would be here to make sure they take those votes.”

Under the Assembly’s 2022 rules, a slow roll call vote is required when a bill is receiving final passage. In a slow roll call vote members can’t vote unless the member is in their regular seat or is serving as speaker, majority leader or minority leader. E.87 removes the requirement and states all votes are a fast roll call vote unless a slow roll call vote is requested.

“Last year we were called into special session for one purpose only — to give all ourselves a 28% raise, making this legislature the highest paid in the nation,” said Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, who voted against the rules change. “Today we’re asked to make changes to the rules that allow us to engage in empty seat voting. … So you don’t even have to show up on the floor of the legislature to have your vote counted. The only time you have to show up to have your vote counted is if you disagree with the Democrat majority. So what’s that really mean? I asked our research staff to tell me what percent of the Democrat votes are consistent with the majority. It typically ranges between 98-99%. So what we’re being asked to approve is a rule change that would allow the Democrat members to avoid 99% (of the votes) and you can have empty seat voting. It’s just shy of a no-show job after giving yourself the highest salary in the nation. It is not something I can support and it is a terrible disservice to everyone who was elected to show up here on the floor of the Assembly, listen to the debate and vote in person.”

ONCE A COMMON PRACTICE

The rules change brings back procedures that were oft-used during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the number of legislators able to be in the Assembly chamber was limited. In those instances when a fast roll call vote was called, party line votes were announced as such, with those disagreeing with their party’s vote able to contact their respective floor leader to have their disagreement noted.

But Assemblyman Edward Ra, R-Garden City, said absentee voting for legislators was a common happening years ago in the chamber — and too often only those who knew they were voting against bills were in the chamber to do so. Ra was referring to pre-2005 Assembly rules that, according to a 2005 New York Times report, allowed Assembly members to sign in to the voting system and then go on cruise control since they were counted as voting yes on all bills unless they signal otherwise.

At the time, empty seat voting was opposed by good government groups like the Brennan Center for Justice and the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“We’re adopting a process by which people don’t need to be in the chamber to vote,” Ra said Monday. “I hope people wouldn’t abuse that. But I know they’ve had rules like that down the hall and I’ve seen plenty of people who when they know it’s a consent calendar swipe in and head home for the night. And there’s really nothing to stop someone from doing that if they want to. I would hope our sense of responsibility to our constituents would prevent us from doing that. But there’s nothing rules-wise that’s going to prevent you from doing that and we had that rule years ago and that’s why it was stopped because what ended up happening on those getaway days the only seats that were filled in this chamber were on this side because everybody else was fine just casting a yes vote. So they didn’t need to be here.”

‘WORK WITH US’

After a couple of Republican speakers harsh comments toward Assembly Democrats, Peoples-Stokes made her own comments accusing Republicans of grandstanding on the issue of empty seat voting because Republicans can still call for a slow roll call vote. She also criticized Republicans’ constant mention of the December pay raise vote, saying Republicans didn’t have to accept the pay raise if they didn’t like it.

“Whatever the grandstanding we’re doing here right now, trying to make this into something it’s not, it’s not fair to the process, it’s not fair to my colleagues and I think you would be more in line if you were to understand that this is an opportunity for us to grow the body into a place that operates more efficiently and gets more of the people’s business done. Work with us. No one is excluding you. No one is denying the minority voice in the state or anywhere else. People understand how it feels to be the minority — many of us do. We would never do that intentionally. It shakes me to the core for you to suggest that. I know how it feels to be a minority. I’m not trying to do that to you, neither is the speaker and neither is anyone on this side of the aisle.”

According to a 2005 report in the Troy Record, however, Democrats assailed a similar proposal when it was introduced in the state Senate in 2005. The Senate, at the time, was controlled by Republicans who, as part of a Senate rules reform, ended empty seat voting only for those who wanted to vote against legislation. Most of those no votes came from Democrats.

“It is regressive because 98 percent of the no votes are cast by Democrats,” said Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Albany, of the 2005 Senate rules reform.

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