Opinion: CJ Opinion

Yellow button would give lawmakers chance to show their true colors

The N.C. General Assembly's Joint Appropriations Committee meets on Feb. 17, 2021. (screen shot from ncleg.gov)
The N.C. General Assembly's Joint Appropriations Committee meets on Feb. 17, 2021. (screen shot from ncleg.gov)

Perhaps the N.C. General Assembly should consider adding a third button to lawmakers’ voting devices.

Along with green for “yes” and red for “no,” the new option — yellow, anyone? — could signify “maybe.” It might also stand for “yes, if the governor tells me it’s OK.”

The additional voting option could make life easier for lawmakers. It certainly would boost government transparency for political observers, especially voters in the legislators’ home districts.

Democratic state senators demonstrated the desirability of the third voting option during the recent debate over Senate Bill 37. That measure aimed to ensure reopening of public schools for in-person instruction across North Carolina.

Both the state House and Senate approved the bill with more than enough votes to clear a three-fifths, or 60%, threshold. That’s the standard required to withstand objections from Gov. Roy Cooper. But that threshold proves useful only if one considers those initial “yes” votes to mean “yes” under all circumstances.

Nine days after lawmakers presented S.B. 37 to the governor, just minutes before the close of government business on a Friday afternoon, the bill returned to the Senate. Cooper had stamped the bill with his veto.

Here’s where the third voting button could have come in handy.

The Senate’s 28 Republicans had offered the school reopening measure unwavering support. But they couldn’t override Cooper’s veto on their own. If every senator showed up for an override vote, Republicans would need at least two Democratic colleagues to vote alongside them.

Based on the initial “yes” votes for S.B. 37, three Democrats — Ben Clark, Kirk deViere, and Paul Lowe — could have been expected to press the green button a second time. With 31 votes, S.B. 37 would have returned to the House for its own veto override attempt.

That’s not what happened. When the Senate reconvened March 1 to consider a veto override, deViere confirmed his initial “yes” vote. But Lowe flipped from “yes” to “no,” admitting later that he was responding to a request from a “Democratic governor.”

Meanwhile, Clark didn’t even show up to cast a vote. With 29 “yes” votes, 20 “no” votes, and Clark missing in action, the Senate fell one vote short of overturning Cooper’s veto.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, noticed the change of mind. “We often run across folks who say, ‘I’m with you, I’m with you, I’m with you — I want to do the same thing, but. ….”

Nothing about the facts of school reopening had changed since the Senate’s initial vote. “All of the issues that are being referred to as concerns about this bill were laid out there at that time,” Berger said. “Yet folks were willing to vote for the bill.”

“I would hope that once someone votes a particular way — and their constituents know how they voted — that they would stick with that and not allow politics rather than science to control what they’re doing,” he added.

“I would submit that the only thing that would allow this veto to stand would be an allegiance — based on politics — as opposed to anything else,” Berger said, moments before his colleagues pressed their buttons.

Had Lowe and Clark been able to cast a “yellow” vote during the initial discussion of S.B. 37, they would have sent a clearer message. They would have signaled their intent to Berger, Cooper, and fellow senators. Most important, voters who sent Lowe and Clark to Raleigh would have had a better idea of the senators’ real priorities.

By casting a “yellow” vote, the two senators would have said: “I support reopening schools, as long as the governor gives me permission to say yes.”

Clark in particular might reap special benefits from having the new yellow voting option.

S.B. 37 marked the 10th time since 2017 that he had a chance to revisit an initial “yes” vote after a Cooper veto. The nine previous override votes involved such important topics as state budget bills, election oversight changes, and business regulation reforms.

On every previous occasion, Clark switched his vote from “yes” to “no.” After initially pressing the green button to endorse the legislation, he reversed course once Cooper stepped into the debate.

The school reopening bill marked the first time that Clark refused to show up to the Senate chamber to press his red button. But his absence had the same effect as a “no” vote.

Now he’s 10 for 10. When it comes to recanting a “yes” vote to defer to the governor’s wishes, Ben Clark is a lock.

One suspects voters in Clark’s 21st Senate District, covering all of Hoke County and part of Cumberland, would like to learn more about this record. They might be interested to know that a caveat comes along with their senator’s votes on important measures involving public education, regulation, and finances.

Adding the yellow button to legislators’ voting machines would give Clark and his colleagues a chance to make their intentions clear.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.