AUSTIN, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – It sounds like science fiction but “ghost voting” is a real, if little-known legal practice at the Texas state capitol.
And it happens thousands of times during the legislative session.
During most votes in the House, members use buttons to vote from their desks – and not just for themselves.
They may “ghost vote” once, twice, three times or more on behalf of their fellow representatives.
Ken Herman, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, has watched lawmakers push each other’s buttons for decades.
“It’s not really a scandal until it is,” said Herman. “[Lawmakers] will go around and punch everyone else’s button who’s not there. In most cases they’ve done it with that person’s authority.”
Texas A&M political science professor Dwight Roblyer says ghost voting is common.
“There’s competition over buttons. The question is how fast people can twist and reach and turn.”
The most notorious case of ghost voting happened in 1991, when a Houston-area lawmaker died of a drug overdose hours before he was due at the capitol.
“The day he died people were ghost voting for him,” said Herman.
If you want to see how it works you’ll have to go to Austin, because even though the House live streams hours of debates and routine readings, when it comes to voting the camera stays focused on the podium up front.
In 2007, the CBS affiliate in Austin peeled back the curtain on the battle over buttons.
People were outraged at the practice, which was against House rules at the time.
“It wasn’t very rosy for the legislature so they went in and changed the rules,” said Roblyer. “Members could vote for other members as long as they had permission.”
Herman says most bills that make it to the floor have enough support to pass by a wide margin, so ghost voting rarely affects the outcome. “In most cases, it’s a courtesy.”
The practice did play a part in the 2019 legislature.
After a bill about policing survived a critical vote, the House held a verification vote, to make sure every lawmaker on the board was actually in the room. “In this case there were four or five – and I tracked them down – where they weren’t even in the building,” said Herman. “So in that case, when they did the verification and checked on it, it came out different than what the board had showed because ghost voting had gone on.”
Former State Representative Jason Villalba says the long days make ghost voting necessary.
“You can’t be on the floor for 20 hours straight,” he said.
Villalba said lawmakers trust each other to help if they step away for meetings or breaks.
“If they were votes you perceived to be non-controversial,” said Villalba, “You would say to your desk mate or trusted member, ‘hey, three votes are coming up, I’d like you to vote me yes, yes, no,’ and that’s how it would happen.”
He also points out that members can make a motion for strict enforcement, which forces lawmakers to be at their desks to take part in a vote.
And if a member doesn’t approve of a ghost vote in their name?
“They can go up after the fact and say ‘I was shown voting aye, show me voting ‘nay’,” said Herman.
Herman’s advice? Just push your own button.
“You went to the trouble to get elected, drive to Austin, you’re so close to your desk,” he said. “Go ahead and walk those few extra feet to vote – would it kill ya?”