Virginia House ends secrecy in committee votes
By Adam Hamza
Capital News Service
Advocates for government transparency are applauding the Virginia House of Delegates for ending its practice of allowing committees and subcommittees to kill legislation on unrecorded voice votes.
In adopting rules for the legislative session that began Wednesday, the House voted unanimously to require panels to record who votes how.
“A recorded vote of members of a committee or subcommittee shall be taken and the name and number of those voting for, against, or abstaining shall be taken upon each measure,” according to the chamber’s new rules, introduced by Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.
In addition to recorded votes, the new rules provide for more proportional representation on committees and require live-streaming and archiving of committee hearings.
In the past, many bills were approved or rejected at the committee and subcommittee level on voice votes alone. This made it was impossible to know which delegates voted against or for a particular bill.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Delegate Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, who founded the Virginia Transparency Caucus, praised the rule change as a major step forward for Virginia.
“This is a victory for transparency and open government for the people of the commonwealth,” Chase said. Levine agreed.
“By having these votes recorded, members will now be responsible for all legislative actions they take. No more will bills be killed in secret without any accountability,” he said.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, commended the move. After the change was announced, Rhyne wrote in an email: “Good work from the House leadership!”
Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, echoed that sentiment. “Everyone needs to know how decisions are made,” she said.
Democrats blamed Republicans for the past secrecy.
“For years, House Republicans have killed critical pieces of progressive legislation through unrecorded voice votes,” House Democratic Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring of Alexandria said in a joint statement. “That era is over, and we welcome a new era of accountability and governance that is more reflective of last year’s election results.”
Democrats picked up 15 House seats in November. As a result, Republicans have only a 51-to-49 majority in that chamber.
Republican leaders acknowledged that the makeup of the House was a factor in changing the rules.
Gilbert said the new rules “reflect the new composition of the House chamber, as well as several new transparency initiatives we are proud to champion.”
Delegate Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, said he is proud that the House changed the rules.
“The work we do as public servants should always be open and accessible to an informed citizenry,” he said. “I have always advocated for recorded votes.”
Last year, Cline sponsored a bill to require recorded votes in committees and subcommittees. It died in the House Rules Committee — on an unrecorded vote.