Greater accountability comes with law on recorded votes

Gov. Nikki Haley signed with great fanfare Tuesday a bill requiring more on-the-record voting by South Carolina's lawmakers.

It's a welcome change from the way the General Assembly has long conducted business and is the result of three years of work to make it easier to find out how lawmakers vote.

Many were surprised to learn in 2008 just how many times they simply shouted out their preferences without tallying how individual legislators had voted.

A 2008 study by the S.C. Policy Council Education Foundation found that House members voted by roll call 8 percent of the time, while senators called the roll in 1 percent of votes for passing bills. The average for the overall legislature was 5 percent.

Legislative leaders criticized the study's methodology, but eventually were persuaded to change their ways. It probably helped that this particular bill was labeled the "Spending Accountability Act." Who could say no to spending accountability?

The law requires recorded roll call votes on each section of the annual budget bill before third and final reading or when a section is being considered individually.

A recorded vote also now is required when the House and Senate consider a conference report; a second reading vote on a bill or joint resolution; a vote on the other body's amendment to a bill; and when a bill or joint resolution is amended on third reading.

Recorded votes on amendments are important. That's where substantive change can come.

Lawmakers had moved toward more votes with rules changes starting in 2009. But proponents of on-the-record voting said it was too easy to change the rules and recorded votes should be backed up by law. Haley made it a centerpiece of her run for governor last year.

The House passed a similar measure in 2010, but members of the Senate resisted. They said the state constitution laid out the two bodies' rule-making powers. If a law was to be passed on the subject, the constitution had to be changed first.

But a majority finally said "yes" to the new law.

It's already much easier to follow votes. The legislature's website, scstatehouse.gov, offers a vote history for the Senate and the House. In a few clicks, you can get to the recorded votes and see how your lawmakers voted.

Of course, as with any law, it could be changed by future legislators and governors. A constitutional amendment would offer greater protections and would bind future lawmakers in a way a law doesn't. It takes a two-thirds vote of each body, a vote by the people of South Carolina and ratification of that vote by the legislature to change the constitution.

But in all likelihood, lawmakers will get used to more recorded votes; the business of lawmaking won't be slowed; and South Carolinians will know more about what their lawmakers are doing in Columbia.

Have we, as Haley said Tuesday, "changed the face of South Carolina forever"?

Probably not, but we'll have a better idea of why we look the way we do and whom to hold accountable for it.