Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States calls for the creation of a Congress that “all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in.” To most Americans, the primary duty of an individual serving in this legislative body is to vote on whether or not authored bills become laws. Few citizens of the United States know more about Congress than Schoolhouse Rock! tells them, and with Jack Sheldon’s famous song going no more in depth with voting than stating that it simply happens, almost no Americans understand the mechanisms and history of how voting occurs. The process of voting has evolved extensively since the founding of our nation.
The modern Congress has three different methods of voting, each more complex and precise; voice votes, division votes, and recorded votes. The House and the Senate both make their own rules, but these three types of votes have emerged in both houses. The simplest of these voting types is known as a voice vote. The House’s version of this method of voting will seem very familiar to student government members, fraternity brothers, and student organizations across the country. In this method, the speaker asks members to consider the item that is to be voted on and respond verbally with either a “yea” or “no” expressing their support or disapproval. All of the “yeas” and all of the “noes” are stated in unison, making an actual voting tally next to impossible. Instead, the speaker will make a judgment stating “’in the opinion of the chair’ this outcome resulted.” The result of a voice vote is typically in favor of the majority party (the party of which the speaker or chairperson is a member of), does not report a tally, and is not recorded on an individual by individual basis. Because of these factors, voice votes in the House often result in a member rejecting the results of the voice vote, as seen in the clip below. This often leads to one of the two other types of votes in the House.
The Senate also has voice votes, however these votes to not usually require a vote at all. Rather than asking for a yea/nay vote, the presiding officer in the Senate will simply state that “without further objection the motion is agreed to.” Many measures and amendments are passed this way in the Senate. There are several advantages to using voice votes, first being their relative ease. This is due to another benefit of voice votes, they are not recorded. Rather than use time on votes that are most likely going to pass, voice votes allow Congress to continue business, even without the entire body present.
Voice votes are not liked by everyone however. The minority party may dislike a voice vote because of its subjective outcome. Others may want the votes to be counted so as to reflect the overall attitudes of members. As a result, the House generally pursues a type of voting know as a division vote, or a “division of the assembly.” This vote is similar to a voice vote, except in a division vote the “ayes” are asked to stand and are then counted, followed by the “noes” standing to be counted. Although the vote is tallied, the names of those who participated in the vote and how they voted are not. A division vote is not ideal because many members no longer sit in the chamber to hear debates, but instead watch the live feed in their offices. As a result, quorum is seldom present for debate, making a division vote obsolete. Division votes are even rarer in the Senate due to comparative small size of the body. In the clip below you can see just how uncommon a division of the assembly, or “standing division,” is. There is confusion within the body as to how they are supposed to respond to a request for “yeas and nays” rather than a voice vote. The body is forced to rely on the experience of Senator Ted Kennedy and a rare division vote is held.
Division votes are also plagued contempt from members of Congress. A congressperson often uses their voting record as a selling point for their reelection, or their opponents voting record as ammunition during an election cycle. As a result, congresspersons desire a voting method that records both the number of votes in each category and who voted what way. Another issue that requires a more in depth voting method is the need for scheduled votes that result in all, or nearly all, available congresspersons to be present in the chamber. The solution to these needs is a vote called a recorded vote. A recorded vote is what most people are likely to assume every vote in Congress is. To request a recorded vote in the House of Representatives, there must be support from one fifth of quorum. Recorded votes in the House were traditionally cast using a complex system of tellers. This was replaced by a system where votes were cast via a ballot-like system with cards colour-coded for “yea” “nay” or “present.” Both of these methods took a long time to tally and did not allow for House leaders to have live vote totals. Beginning in 1972, the House has used “electronic-devices” for voting. These machines feature three buttons; again, “yea”, “nay”, and “present”, and a slot for a card that featured a magnetic strip with a validation code unique to each congressperson. This greatly increased the speed of voting and resulted in a large increase in the number of recorded votes. This in turn changed the way the House operates. With more being recorded there is now an incentive to offer an increased number of floor amendments. The increased speed of electronic voting has also led to new House rules and uses for old House rules. For example, the speaker can “stack” a vote, or have items be voted on in quick succession, in order to limit the number of trips congresspersons need to make between their offices and the House chamber and quicken the pace at which amendments are voted on. A stacked, recorded vote is seen in the video below. The speaker pro-tempore announces a list of amendments stating that the first one will be subject to a fifteen minute vote and all subsequent amendments to two additional minutes. The speaker can also hold the window for voting open in an attempt to have the outcome reflect their own opinion. This reached a boiling point in 2003 when Republican leaders kept a fifteen minute vote open for over two hours until the outcome had be reversed. Although subsequent Congresses have attempted to write rules against this, the practice is still permitted.
Recorded votes are much different in the Senate due to a multitude of factors. First, the Senate has a total of 100 members as compared to the House’s 435. Second, the Senate does not use an electronic voting system, partly because there is less of a need due to the body’s smaller size. Rather than use cards or tellers as previous voting procedures in the House would dictate, the Senate has what is called a “roll-call” vote. In a roll-call vote, the clerk with read off the name of each Senator and record their vote. The rules of the Senate state that this process should take 15 minutes, but it almost always takes longer.
These three methods of voting are not reserved for the body as a whole. Variations on these methods are employed at every level of voting in the United States Congress. This includes committees. One unique feature of the modern House of Representatives is the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union, or simply, the Committee of the Whole. The Committee of the Whole is a useful tool during votes on certain items, such as amendments to proposed legislation, due to the fact that the Committee of the Whole only requires 100 members to make quorum. Historically, division votes or voice votes were the only type of vote used in the committee of the whole. This was due to the time it would take to collect and tally the votes. Again, the House changed dramatically after the introduction of electronic voting machines. It was now possible to take a recorded vote in fifteen minutes or less. The rules for requesting a recorded vote are identical for the Committee of the Whole as for the entire House, meaning that only twenty-five representatives are required to initiate one. These two factors led have created an atmosphere where a majority of House business can be conducted in the Committee of the Whole, reserving only final votes of special business for the entire House. The Committee of the Whole is currently absent in the Senate, although there has been one historically. This tactic is no longer allowed in Senate rules largely due to the size of the Senate making such a committee unnecessary, if not harmful, in the body as a whole.
In addition to the types of votes and settings for votes, there are also special voting tactics that are worth noting. One such tactic is called a live paired vote. A live pair is used when a member of congress anticipates an absence and makes an agreement with another member of a differing opinion who will be present for the vote. The member who is present for the vote will cast the vote in the manner they choose and this will be recorded on the record. The member will then ask the presiding officer to change the recently cast vote to “present” stating that there is a live pair agreement between the present member and the absent member, which will be recorded in the record as well. This tactic is seldom used in the modern congress. Instead, members will simply state how they would have voted and have it added to the congressional record with them being physically present for the vote.
Many amendments and pieces of legislation are passed daily. As a result, no congressperson is able to read all of the material that is to be voted on. As a result, congresspersons have developed vote trading, or voting for one member’s legislation in exchange for a reciprocated vote on another piece of legislation. In the House, this process is made easier by the advent of electronic voting machines. When a representative casts their vote electronically, the way they voted is displayed on a board above the front of the chamber. Representatives can use this to ensure that each end of a vote trade is being upheld. Representatives can also use this board to decide based on which members of the House they typically vote with. Leaders can use the board to know who is still deciding and who needs convincing further. The Senate’s method of voting requires each name to be read aloud and each vote to be cast aloud, meaning that a display of cast votes would not rely on an electronic system.
Voting is considered by some to be the most essential duty of a congressperson. Former congressman Mike Synar summed it up this way, “If you don't like fighting fires, don't be a fireman ... and if you don't like voting, don't be a congressman.” As dictated by the Constitution, Congress has come up with its own rules regarding how voting is to occur. These ways reflect the necessities of the body, the political culture of the country, and the technology of the time. By better understanding the ways Congress votes, citizens can better understand how these votes affect them and how they can make a difference by voting themselves.
Clerk of the U.S. House of Representitives. (n.d.). Electronic Voting Machine. Retrieved November 8, 2011, from Art and History: http://artandhistory.house.gov/art_artifacts/virtual_tours/house_chamber/voting.aspx
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The Library of Congress. (n.d.). How Our Laws Are Made. Retrieved November 8, 2011, from THOMAS.gov: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/lawsmade.bysec/consideration.html
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