Republican Speaker of the House Scott Bedke deserves praise for implementing a meaningful change in the way Idaho House votes have been conducted for generations. The change is bound to enliven debates and make legislators behave more thoughtfully about their decisions.
For decades, giant scoreboards in the House chamber had displayed the names of every representative. Next to each name were a green light, which would illuminate for a yes vote, and a red light, which would illuminate for a no vote. When debate on a bill concluded, a bell would sound and the scoreboard would light up like Christmas decoration as it tallied the votes of all the members present. Members could change their votes from yes to no or vice versa until the speaker ordered the clerk to lock in the decision.
When the state Capitol was remodeled several years ago, the scoreboards were replaced with large television screens. Since then, instead of colored lights, representatives’ names have illuminated red or green, depending on whether they’re voting yes or no. Though the display changed, the process has remained as it has for generations, the public, as well as representatives themselves, have watched as the votes come in, as votes have switched back and forth and when the final vote is declared.
On Thursday, however, Bedke changed everything. He decided that lawmakers’ individual votes would remain hidden until a vote is final. After all the votes are cast and the tally locked in, the votes are revealed for everyone to see.
Here’s what Bedke’s action means. First, no more looking over the proverbial shoulder of other legislators. Lawmakers can no longer watch for the vote of a friend or seatmate before making their decision. For many years, I’ve watched some legislators essentially give their votes to someone else, watching intently to see what a friend, trusted colleague or a mentor does before casting their own vote. Now, each legislator gets to own his or her decision.
Second, floor debate will become, of necessity, more meaningful and more important. Legislators will need to take time and care to convince their colleagues to support their positions. And legislators will need to do a better job of listening to what’s being said. The wrong debate or the lack of debate, the failure to pay attention, or the failure to grasp a significant detail, could have serious consequences for Idahoans.
Finally, legislators will need to do their homework. They’ll have to take more time to read bills, to study an issue and to be ready on their own to make a decision, yes or no, up or down, without first seeing which way the wind is blowing.
When Bedke unilaterally made this process change, I admit I was somewhat chagrined. For the last two decades I’ve watched, as many have, the scoreboards light up with votes. There’s a bit of excitement in watching the yes and no votes accumulate to decide the fate of an important piece of legislation.
Bedke has changed the system I and many Statehouse observers have become accustomed to. But Bedke perceived that representatives weren’t owning their votes, that their decisions belonged to someone other than themselves, and that it was too easy for lawmakers to leave the hard work to someone else. And he is probably right. The change he has implemented could help make the legislative process more deliberative, more thoughtful, richer, livelier and, hopefully, more representative of the opinions held by legislators who were each elected to represent the viewpoints of some 45,000 Idahoans.
Wayne Hoffman heads the Idaho Freedom Foundation.