Image credit. Books can tell you a lot about how to do well on the open sea; nevertheless, to be on the high seas is an experience in its own right, and it will teach you a lot that the books do not convey. I suppose, the same is true for a legislator setting sail. For all the knowledge we may have, in order for our convictions to find a place in reality, some of us need to get seaborne legislators.
Writes Senator-elect Laura Ebke:
Article III, Section 11 of the Nebraska Constitution suggests that votes shall all be open and public, "except when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret." I guess the question is this: should votes for leadership positions [within the Nebraska Legislature, G.T.] be kept secret?
George Norris, the man behind the uniquely Nebraskan one-house, non-partisan legislature, explains the spirit behind the unicameral structure:
"Every act of the legislature and every act of each individual must be transacted in the spotlight of publicity."
In her efforts at defending this fundamental legislative proposition, Senator(-elect) Laura Ebke appears to receive support from Creighton University Law Professor Pat Borchers - writes the Nebraskan watchdog:
If calls for “transparency” aren’t enough to stop a series of secret votes in the Nebraska Legislature—and apparently they’re not—how about trying the First Amendment on for size.
According to Creighton University Law Professor Pat Borchers, the secret votes interfere with freedom of the press.
Borchers—his name’s been tossed around as a possible GOP candidate for Congress in 2016—argues keeping citizens informed is a “fundamental right” that can only be skirted if the government can prove a “compelling interest.”
“I deny no elected representative the right to vote his or her conscience. But the right to do that without having to explain it publicly and out of the view of the press is hardly compelling. If, in the judgment of a voting Senator, the best qualified Senator to lead a committee is from the other party (or is independent) I want to know why, so that I can be an informed voter at the next election.—Pat Borchers
Senator(-elect) Laura Ebke explains her position on her facebook page:
- I believe that--in the spirit of George Norris--a Unicameral legislature can only work to the advantage of the people if the people serve as the "second house," just as the U.S. Senate provides a counterweight to the House (and vice versa), and how two house legislatures in all 49 other states work. Forty-nine state senators were not, I don't believe, intended to be the "only word." The assumption of Norris was that an engaged citizenry would provide the necessary checks and balances to legislative overreach.
- Nebraska's legislature records and makes available just about everything--transcripts, etc.--although it is cumbersome, sometimes difficult to access, and generally gives us a poor rating on some transparency report cards (http://openstates.org/reportcard/). While most of what the legislature does officially is not "secret" and is accessible, it seems to me that the cumbersome nature of access, when combined with secret ballots for some leadership positions, gives us the appearance of non-transparency, even if it's not entirely true.
- The Speaker and the Committee Chair positions are critical to the success or failure of some legislation. The Chairs schedule hearing times for legislation, and while all proposed bills are entitled to a hearing, delays in scheduling those hearings can impact whether bills will be considered after hearing for debate by the full body. Likewise, the Speaker is essentially the Chief Administrative Officer off the Legislature, and is responsible for the scheduling of legislation on the floor.
- Some have suggested that the talk of eliminating the secret ballot is politically motivated by partisan politics--that because (in the officially non-partisan legislature) Republican ostensibly hold a significant majority of the seats, that leadership positions ought to reflect those percentages (at least), however in the 103rd Legislature, Democrats held a significant majority of the Committee Chairs. I can understand how some might think that, however for myself, it comes down to the points that I made in #1 above, namely, that transparency is critical. Whether Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or Socialists hold a majority in our non-partisan legislature is not the relevant point; the relevant point is whether the second house is entitled to know who their representatives are voting for.
I believe that the people have a right to know how I vote. In the case of the Speaker's race, and at least one of the Standing Committee Chair races, I believe that both candidates vying for the positions are registered Republicans. In other races, there are only registered Democrats running. In a few, there may be a Republican vying against a Democrat. My votes are relevant to all, but especially those in my district, who have every right to expect for me to be public in my voting, and to explain my vote.
Although I'm a registered Republican, I have no problem with voting for a Democrat for a leadership position--but what I need to be able to do, no matter who I vote for, is to defend my vote. I need to be willing to explain why I voted for a particular candidate over the other--and more importantly, my constituents ought to be able to hold me accountable for that vote if my choice turns out to be a bad one.
I understand the impulse toward secret ballots. There are 48 other state legislators who I will be working with, some of whom I'll become friends with, most of whom I'll need votes from at some point in time--a secret ballot for leadership positions provides enough margin of doubt so that others really never *know* whether you've voted FOR them or AGAINST them (FOR someone else). We are conditioned not to want to hurt the feelings of others, and so we somehow think think that secret ballots absolve us of that.
But secret ballots also relieve those of us upon whom the public trust is bestowed of accountability. You may not always agree with my votes, but as your representative, I owe you the courtesy of letting you know what my votes are, and explaining them if you question my choices. I think that holds true for leadership votes, as well as our votes on legislation.
To that end, it's my understanding that there will probably be an effort to change the rules on opening day to do away with the secret ballot for this year's leadership votes. I have no idea whether or not the votes are there to be successful. I will vote in favor of more transparency and for open balloting.
If that effort should fall short--or end up not being pursued--I will still make my votes public, via my Facebook page. I realize that I might be the only one doing that, and that I risk becoming a bit of an outcast for a time in the legislature. But I ran for this office on a promise of transparency, and I won't allow the first votes that I make in my first hours as your representative to violate that commitment to my constituents. My votes will be cast in the case of contested races not based on antipathy towards either of the candidates, but my judgment of who will be able to be the most fair and effective leader in the position that they are running for.
Three personal remarks:
I support Senator Ebke's position, and commend her for starting off her term as legislator by formulating a clear baseline regarding one of the most fundamental questions of the legislative process.
If I were opposed to Senator Ebke's position, I would still welcome and commend her taking a well argued opposite position, which (1) represents the concern of many people, and (2) forces all involved to carefully think through a fundamentally important issue. It sharpens our sensitivity in an area where being sensitive is of the essence.
I do not know what experience will teach us with regard to this vital question; maybe aspects turn up that could not have been forseen, and justify some qualifications to the baseline position. I cannot anticipate any - but, I am lacking in experience. What matters most is an open-minded, critical, honest, and conscientious approach to handling the issue.
My posts, including the present one, are never coordinated with Laura Ebke, who generously allows me to express my views as I see fit. The responsibility for the contents of my posts lies exclusively with me. The views expressed in my writing are those of the author Georg Thomas and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any other person associated with RedStateEclectic. Georg Thomas.