RICHMOND – During the recently concluded legislative session, three bills to increase the minimum wage in Virginia died in the House Labor and Commerce Committee. Want to know who voted for or against the measures? Sorry, the votes went unrecorded.
A bill requiring transgender people to use the restroom for the sex on their birth certificate died in the House General Laws Committee. Want to know who voted for or against it? No luck, those votes weren't recorded either.
A bill prohibiting politicians from converting their campaign funds for personal use died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee. Want to know who voted for or against it? Forget it, that bill was killed on an unrecorded voice vote, too.
Of the 571 House bills that failed during the session, more than two-thirds were anonymously killed on voice votes in subcommittees that went unrecorded, according to data from the Legislative Information System, the General Assembly's official recordkeeping arm. Proponents of open government say the lack of transparency muddies the waters of Virginia's democracy.
"For a final disposition on a vote, it is crucial they be recorded," said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
People elect their representatives based on how politicians stand on issues vital to voters' interests, Rhyne said. If they can't see how public officials have voted on an issue, citizens can't accurately choose their representatives, she said.
Delegates have said in the past that using voice votes keeps the legislative process moving quickly and lessens the burden on lawmakers.
Rhyne disputed that notion. "I really don't see that with electronic voting measures and small committees," she said. "It doesn't hold water."
Unlike the House, votes by Senate panels are generally recorded.
LIS data showed that 1,086 bills were filed by members of the House for consideration during the legislative session that ran from Jan. 11 through Feb. 25. Of the total, 515 bills passed and 571 failed. Of the failed bills, 390 died on unrecorded voice votes, according to LIS data.
In addition, at least 20 other House bills were simply ignored this session. These measures were assigned to committees, but the panels did not hold hearings on them. As a result, the bills were left in their committees without a vote.
They included a bill to repeal Virginia's legal prohibitions against same sex-marriage (because they are no longer valid in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling), as well as bills to expand and to restrict abortion rights.
Del. Benjamin Cline, R-Rockbridge, introduced a bill during this session that would have required every bill, budget amendment and resolution to receive a recorded vote. It died in the House Rules Committee – on an unrecorded vote. In 2016, a similar proposal by Cline met the same fate.
House officials say both Democrats and Republicans have supported the system of unrecorded votes in subcommittees.
"It only takes two members to request a recorded vote," said Christopher West, policy and communications director for House Speaker William Howell and the House Republican leadership. "Based on the ratio that's set up, there's almost always two Democrats on a subcommittee."
West added that when a subcommittee tables or strikes a bill, it is only a suggestion to its parent committee. The full committee can consider any piece of legislation killed in subcommittee.
"The reason we do it is because it doesn't take final action on the bill," West said.
On last day of the 2017 session, 85 delegates and senators — members of the Virginia Transparency Caucus — signed a letter seeking more accountability throughout the legislative process.
"The vast majority of debates and decisions determining how bills are crafted occurs in committee or Subcommittee. Indeed, more than half of all bills die there," Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, a co-founder of the caucus, said wrote in the letter. "Constituents have a right to know how and why bills they support or oppose ultimately met their fate."
The caucus sent the letter to the clerks of the House and Senate as the state is preparing to tear down and replace the decrepit General Assembly Building. The letter asked that "the new General Assembly Building (and, if possible, the interim Pocahontas Building) maintain full audio and visual recording capability, as well as transparent vote recording machines for all Committee and Subcommittee hearings rooms in both the Senate and the House of Delegates."