Cook: Sticks and stones may break my votes

Cook: Sticks and stones may break my votes

May 3rd, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

At a time when our faith in democracy needs a heart transplant, when elected representatives need to send the message to voters that they are as pure and trustworthy as Girl Scouts, when citizens are up to their eyeballs in frustration and distrust, we get drop-kicked once again.

Right in the ballots.

"We were up at the Capitol a couple of weeks ago covering a bill," said Jennifer Kraus, investigative reporter for WTVF News Channel 5 in Nashville. "We saw many of (the state representatives) using these sticks."

Sticks?

"Tons," she said. "Some look like pool cues."

Others are whittled. Kraus saw sticks decorated like miniature hockey sticks. How, pray tell, are tiny whittled hockey sticks being used in our esteemed state Legislature?

"We observed the majority of lawmakers at one time or another pushing buttons for other people who were not there," she said.

During the most important part of their job - the democratic process of voting for legislation that can affect millions of people - Nashville representatives are often not even in the room. And to make sure their vote gets cast, they arrange for their co-legislator seated nearby to press the aye or nay button for them.

And to do that, their colleague uses a stick. Whittled ones.

"It seemed to be kind of an accepted practice," said Kraus, who should win a prize for her report.

You feel it yet? That sick feeling in your gut? The barometric rise in blood pressure? Please - oh please - tell me only a few were involved.

"By no means," said Kraus, who later used the word "widespread" to describe this stick-ghost-voting, which she said both parties employ.

It's understandable if you have to run out to get a drink of water, stretch your legs, shake hands with constituents. That's when you lean over and ask your colleague - two representatives share a wooden desk divided into two sections - to vote on your behalf.

For example: "Jimmy, nature is calling. Please press 'aye' for me to allow coal companies to keep blowing off the tops of mountains in Tennessee." Or something like that.

But sticks? Sticks suggest a system, a fraternity of sorts. Sticks smack of arrogance, a lord ruling over his fiefdom, casually casting votes with pine knots or something. Let them eat sticks.

You ought to pressure-wash your hands before you vote, so awed by the entrusted power you have. You ought to take your shoes off. Fast for a week.

Kraus' video - easily accessed online - is troubling. Attendance is officially announced - after roll is taken - as everyone present, yet Kraus counts more than a dozen empty seats.

Rep. Jimmy Naifeh repeatedly votes for his missing colleague, Lois DeBerry. When Rep. Dennis Roach arrives 90 minutes late, his deskmate Dale Ford - who's already cast 12 votes for Roach that night - then picks up and leaves for the night. You expect to see them high-five or fist-bump.

"Repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, we have asked to speak with [House Speaker] Beth Harwell to get her reaction," Kraus told me. "Almost a week later, she is still too busy to talk to us about it."

I've started - but haven't finished - calling our area representatives. It's such a demeaning moment, hearing yourself ask your elected leader: Representative, have you had someone else cast a vote using a stick on your behalf?

The most insulting part is the message this sends. The hubris. You, Elected Representative, are voting on things that affect millions of lives. The price of college. The existence of life-saving social services. I think about the good folks at Taft Youth Center who are about to lose their jobs.

They deserve better.

I wonder how many people ghost-stick-voted to pass the controversial voter ID law. You know, to prevent fraud.

I wonder how many people ghost-stick-voted to pass the law requiring welfare recipients to get drug tested.

You know, to make sure they're not taking advantage of the system.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.