Tallying the votes

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Hardly a day goes by without a member of the public asking a legislative staffer some variant of the following question: “How do I find out how my legislator voted on a bill?”

It’s an important question, and one that’s relatively easy to answer once you know where to find the information — but there are a few things you should know first.

Although there are only two ways that a House or Senate member can vote on a bill — “yes” or “no” — the decision-making process that goes into that vote is often as complicated as the bill itself. This is especially true of large omnibus bills, which can run hundreds of pages and comprise many individual pieces of legislation.

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Rep. Mark Olson (IR-Big Lake) speaks frequently on the House floor about his concern with omnibus bills. He said such bills present a dilemma to lawmakers: how many good or bad provisions does a bill have to contain before you vote one way or the other?

“Each member has a different strike zone,” Olson said. “Is the bill 90 percent good? Or is it 60 percent good? … Think about it like this: it sounds really good that you’re voting for a bill that’s 90 percent good, but if the bill is appropriating $10 billion, you’ve just wasted a billion dollars.”

Sometimes, even a single controversial provision will compel a House member to oppose a bill. On March 6, for example, Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter) cast the lone vote in the House against an omnibus tax bill. Even though he generally supports the legislation, Morrow was upset that a local option sales tax provision that he sponsored had been removed to make it more acceptable to Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“Members, there are good things in this bill. … It pains me to do this, but on this one I feel I have to take a stand for the people of North Mankato,” Morrow said.

A legislator might have any number of reasons for voting a certain way; just because they vote against a bill doesn’t necessarily mean they oppose the issue it seeks to address, and vice versa. Sometimes lawmakers vote against a bill simply because they think it hasn’t gone through the proper legislative process.

Olson said people often take House members’ votes out of context, and encourages people to contact their legislator and ask them why they voted a certain way on a bill.

Who represents you?

The first step in learning how your legislator voted on a certain bill is to find out who represents you at the Legislature. The easiest way to do this is to access the House Web site (www.house.mn); however, for those who do not have Internet access, or who would rather speak to someone in person anyway, you can always call House Public Information Services at 651-296-2146 or 800-657-3550. During business hours, a staff member will be on hand to assist you.

If you do have Internet access, go to www.house.mn and click “Who represents you?” on the left side of the screen. Click on “District Finder” and type in your home address, and then click “Search.” You should see a screen that provides the name of your state representative, state senator, U.S. representative and your two U.S. senators.

How did they vote?

If you want to know how your House member voted on a bill, you have several options. One is to simply call them directly. This method has the advantage of allowing you to let your legislator know — politely, if at all possible — how you feel about their vote.

All recorded floor votes are also on the House Web site. On the main page, click on “Recorded Votes” in the middle-right column. From there, you can sort votes by either date or bill number. When you click on an individual bill, you will be taken to a list of all recorded roll-call votes on the bill, with the most recent vote being listed at the bottom.

Another way to view floor votes on key legislation is to click on the “Hotlist” link on the main page. This will take you to a list of “well known” bills that have been heard within the last biennium.

With regard to votes taken by House members in committee, the committee staff is not required to record how individual committee members vote on a bill unless a roll-call vote has specifically been requested. If roll-call votes were taken by a committee on a specific bill, you can view them in the committee meeting minutes, which are accessible through the House main page via the “Committee Information” hyperlink.