March 3, 2016

BARELY LEGAL | Mystery of the Ghost Voter

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Every country has a portion of elected officials who do not consider it necessary to go to work. The absence of a public official is important in principle, because they represent the public and the public interest. They are granted significant power that should require extreme care or, at least, presence in the workplace. Some are absent only for the discussions, others skip votes. During the discussion period, the absentees risk missing important amendments and contributing to the discussion. Missing voting, however, is much worse, not only because those representatives avoid responsibility, but also because that creates the opportunity for somebody else to vote in their place, a practice called “ghost voting.”

To be fair, this practice is almost omnipresent and the U.S. federal government has a decent record. The French version of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, is a good example of the practice across the Atlantic. She was accused of fraud when her vote was recorded 10 minutes after she left the European Parliament. For the French parliamentary session in 2012, studies have shown a median absence for 10 to 15 percent of the votes depending on the party. An article published in the Guardian revealed that a U.K. member of parliament had been absent 67 percent of the time.

In comparison, although a Senate-sponsored report claims that “typically only a handful of Senators are present during floor debates,” which is certainly questionable, the statistics for voting are significantly better. According to Govtrack, the median for missed votes by officials in Congress is about two percent. That being said, the issue persists for two reasons. First, there are individuals who are frequently absent, such as some presidential candidates, which is understandable during election year (30 to 45 percent of absences), but less so for the year before (10 to 15 percent).

Mostly though, attendance and ghost voting remain a problem in state legislative bodies. For instance, elected officials in Tennessee pass out bizarre voting sticks that allow them to vote in lieu of an absentee from a distance. In Texas, two votes killed a tax bill, despite the fact that the voters were not even in Austin. The most remarkable event, however, is that of a representative voting for weeks after his death. When confronted with this, some representatives feign ignorance, while others say outright that they don’t see a problem with it.

Of course, the problem is that ghost voting is against the rules: representatives are required to attend and vote in person without delegating, both in Congress, as well as most of the state legislative bodies. The second issue is a lack of transparency, as we do not know who actually voted. Moreover, if we do not know who voted, we cannot hold that person accountable for his actions. Finally, when the people elect an official and decide to pay him a significant salary through taxes, they should expect him or her to at least show up to work, both to discuss the issues and to vote on them.

What are the possible solutions? Mandatory presence is already introduced in most legislative bodies, sometimes sanctioned by disciplinary proceedings. However, enforcement is difficult for political reasons — the politicians who raise the issue have no interest in doing so. Quorum minimums that exist are mostly used as either a means to pause a discussion or to filibuster the vote, and not to verify actual presence.

Another way to solve the problem would be to reform the voting procedure. One could argue for the legalization of the process, allowing for proxies to be sent in advance. That would solve the “ghost voting issue” and increase transparency and accountability. Yet, it could concentrate power between the hands of certain individuals who could wield multiple votes and become “more equal” than their peers in the assembly. Perhaps this is the reason why delegating votes is banned in most places as a principle.

Another measure could be electronic voting. Since sessions could already be streamed live, senators could both vote for amendments and for the laws themselves from a distance. They could even join the discussion via a live stream, in order to introduce amendments. However, that holds the risk of cyber-attacks — the Office of Personnel Management (the HR office of the White House) was recently hacked by two individuals. Also, both China and Russia have recently demonstrated their willingness to use cyberattacks as weapons.

Finally, one could simply hold representatives who do not go to their workplace accountable during reelection. After all, a private individual would get fired if they are not present, regardless of the excuse, and that would apply both for the discussion and for the voting stage. They would be held liable if they secretly asked somebody else to do their job and that somebody else went on to kill the bill, for example. So why not apply the same for public officials?

Rudolf Efremov is a LL.M student in the class of 2016. Responses can be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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