Thursday, December 5, 2013

Turn out the lights and vote

Political reformers and First Amendment advocates are always calling for more openness in the legislative process. “Let the sunshine in” they cry. Did you ever ask yourself whether we might end up with better laws if there were less sunshine?

An early December vote in the US House is an example. Using a procedure that prevents constituents from knowing which Republicans voted in favor of a ban on plastic guns, the House extended the Undetectable Firearms Act for another ten years Tuesday. The law, banning weapons that cannot be detected by airport x-ray equipment, is the only gun legislation to get a vote in the U.S. House this year. If a roll call vote had been required, do you really think the GOP controlled House would have allowed a vote?

Less sunshine on the legislative process actually produced a beneficial result. 

A 2012 Center for Public Integrity report ranked Wyoming 48th out of 50 states when it comes to accountability in state politics. The failing grade was mostly attributable to the lack of regulation of conflicts of interest and inability of citizens to access financial disclosure information about legislators.

Yet there is another perennial proposal some reformers think would enhance the credibility and accountability of Wyoming’s legislature. With great frequency they propose electronic voting as a means of providing voters with better information about how their legislators vote on all matters.

Consider the US House vote on the plastic gun ban and ask whether a similar cloak of secrecy might not produce a better result on any number of issues, particularly social issues.

I recall the early days of the abortion debate. It was the early 70s and I served in the Wyoming House with Al Simpson when one of the first bills seeking to undue Roe v. Wade was debated. The rhetoric was heated. The galleries were packed. As time to vote neared, Al rose to his feet and said something to the effect of, “I suspect I know how this vote will go. However, it would be a far different result if we were to cast our votes with the lights turned off.”

Nothing has changed. With the lights out, there would be little doubt the legislature would reject some of the rightwing bills attacking women’s reproductive rights. What’s true for abortion is just as true for same-sex marriage. Many legislators understand the meaning of equal protection and civil rights. They know the law that denies homosexuals the government benefits available to heterosexual couples is wrong. They don’t buy the argument that a loving relationship between people of the same sex threatens any “traditional” marriage. But, they are unwilling to risk the wrath of a minority.

Today the odds of marriage equality clearing either house of the legislature are slim to none. But if the lights were turned out for the vote, I’d give you even money that the bill would pass.

Darkness may not be a good substitute for political courage, but without it, terrorists would be able to board airliners with plastic guns in their pockets.  I’d sacrifice the right to know how my legislator voted for the right result. Knowing how they voted hasn’t made them accountable anyhow.

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