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  Comments (0) Total Thursday Apr. 17, 2014
Accidents Happen a Lot
Like I Was Sayin...
It should be a lawmaker’s easiest task, pressing the correct button that indicates which way they want to vote on a procedure or piece of legislation, “yea” or “nay.” But that’s not always the case as evidenced by Great Falls Democrat Rep. Tom Jacobson’s vote that may have sunk Medicaid expansion in Montana and which he said was a mistake.

But bad button pushing is nothing new. Ten years ago, when I was covering the North Dakota Legislature for the Associated Press, a bill failed by one vote in the House of Representatives when a lawmaker voted the wrong way. It involved limiting the number of licenses issued to out-of-state sportsmen who hunt ducks and geese. It was controversial at the time and initially failed by one vote when Rep. Ron Iverson, R-Fargo, accidentally voted against it. “I just hit the wrong button,” he said.

I remember thinking how unusual that was – you know, a mistaken vote deciding the fate of a big piece of legislation. Then it happened again during the same legislative session.

Those bills were not as massive as the one potentially botched by Jacobson’s wrong vote at the Montana Legislature. During a vote to overturn Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel’s, R-Somers, decision to refer HB623 back to committee, the House deadlocked 50-50. And the legislation died.

Lee Newspapers’ Mike Dennison reported that Jacobson said he had misunderstood the vote and thought he was actually voting to uphold the challenge to prevent HB623 from heading back to committee. Nonetheless, when the House voted again to reconsider that motion, it failed 48-52. And HB623, which would have used Medicaid dollars to buy private health insurance for thousands of low-income Montanans, never made it to the floor.

Its unusual death also ended up making national news. In a story titled, “Accidents happen: How one mistaken vote killed Montana’s Medicaid expansion,” The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff interviewed Democrat Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, who said, “We’re tremendously sorry about what happened.”

And these things do happen, more often than you think. In North Carolina last summer, the Republican-controlled Legislature needed 60 percent of its representatives to vote in favor of overriding Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of a bill to allow shale gas exploration, or “fracking,” in that state. And it did, 72-47, by one vote – one of which was cast the wrong way.

Veteran Democratic Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte, who opposes fracking, pushed the wrong button. She was prevented from changing her vote. She wept when she realized her mistake.

When the bungled vote made headlines, WSOC-TV in Charlotte investigated how often lawmakers change their vote, when it’s allowed. At it turns out, a whole lot. The news station reported that over the course of a year North Carolina representatives changed their votes 426 times.

Whether wrong votes are due to distractions, complex legislation or the sheer number of bills state lawmakers vote on (hundreds each session) is subject to debate. But these accidents do happen and, in rare cases, can have a huge impact on how states operate.

In North Carolina, a statewide ban on fracking was lifted. In Montana, a vote on greatly expanding Medicaid never made it to the floor. And in both instances, a mistaken vote, for better or worse, decided their fates. It’s easy to lament the ineptitude of bad button pushing, but perhaps that’s not fair. I remember how sheepish Iverson was during an interview following his wrong vote. He felt horrible. Jacobson probably feels the same way.

Wrong votes are not unusual. But they also shouldn’t decide whether a major piece of legislation passes. And if lawmakers are confused about what their vote actually means, perhaps they should ask for an explanation.
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