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Opinion

Ghost voting a poor practice by some lawmakers

| Wednesday, April 7, 2004

In Pennsylvania, the citizens elect senators and representatives to act on their behalf in the state General Assembly. It must be a prestige job, because the candidates and their parties spend a lot of money and make a lot of promises to get there.

Once in place, these senators and representatives are handsomely compensated for answering the call to public duty. Right now they are paid $66,203.55, plus numerous perquisites and benefits.

One would think that for this privilege -- and for the fifth-highest legislative salary in the nation -- these lawmakers would recognize a degree of obligation to show up and vote whenever their names are called. Some do, of course -- and some don't.

Surely no legislator wants to be known as a slacker, and a spotty floor-vote record looks bad to the folks back home at election time. So long ago, inventive lawmakers came up with ways to vote without actually voting.

One way to do this is by proxy voting, in which an absentee trusts another legislator to cast his vote. Another is by rigging the electric vote-tabulation system, in which an absentee jams the machine to register his "ghost vote" when he or she is away at the ball game or fishing or whatever.

Ghost voting is bad practice. It undermines the democratic principle upon which our form of government rests: that the people should be vigorously -- not occasionally, not adequately -- represented in the conduct of their government.

It also is as Pennsylvanian as shoofly pie. Legislators have been doing it for years. In June 1991, Rep. Richard Hayden, D-Philadelphia, was recorded as voting "yes" on the state budget. At the time the vote was recorded, Hayden was at Philadelphia International Airport. It was later determined he had used a paper clip to jam the voting machine to record a yes vote.

In May 1994, Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, was counted among the majority of a 199-0 vote to impeach state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen. At the time the vote was recorded, Evans was in his office meeting with constituents.

But perhaps the most egregious example of ghost voting occurred in September 1992, when Reps. Ed Krebs, D-Annville, and Rep. Pat Carone, D-Butler, learned after the fact that someone had usurped their votes, in their absence and without their knowledge, to vote on a discharge petition. The culprit was never apprehended.

Can ghost voting be effectively trumped, perhaps by computerized voting or other high-tech means• Probably not, or it would have been tried already. Even the most sophisticated computer is vulnerable to hacking -- which is one reason computerized voting has not been embraced in the election of candidates.

So what can be done• Technically and mechanically, very little at this point. Morally and ethically is another matter. Perhaps our well-compensated and hardly overworked lawmakers might better familiarize themselves with the House Rules that require that a member be in the "Hall of the House" in order to cast a vote. One's office -- or the Philadelphia airport terminal -- does not qualify as the Hall of the House.

At the same time, the voters might wish to examine whether their particular representative is doing the job he or she was sent to Harrisburg to do. If ghost voting -- jamming the machine or secretly proxying another member's vote -- is deemed acceptable, the people and their representatives need not fret. But if the voters hold these practices to be subversive, lazy, haughty, cynical and fraudulent -- as we do -- then they should put the offenders on notice and demand an accounting at the polling place -- where politicians have not yet figured out how to jam the machine.

-- The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News

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