01 Jul Useless Scorecards
The Misguided Politics of Legislative Voting Records
“ An elaborate act of [rubbish], generally used to distract attention away from the sheer uselessness of the actual project or act.”
— Definition of “Dog and Pony Show” by Urban Dictionary
Every legislator in local, state, and federal public office likely has at least one. It could be hanging in their office, proudly displayed to constituents or providing a warning shot to influential lobbyists. It could be touted on their campaign materials and website as being the beacon of truth demonstrating commitment to one’s platform. Or, it could be used by advocacy groups for their members to target problematic legislators. So, what are we talking about? A Legislative Scorecard that tracks how a legislator voted on a particular issue, bill or subject. For example, the issue could be women’s rights, and the voter scorecard might list a dozen bills impacting women’s rights and how the legislator voted on them. Depending on the scorecard, certain bills might have a higher level of importance attached to them. The final result is a scorecard that allegedly claims to rank legislators based on their political leanings. The truth is that the scorecard is more akin to a pat on the back for some legislators than an actual leveraging technique that can be used for change.
Traditionally, these scorecards list every legislator, creating a compare and contrast for the reader. And, regardless of how one chooses to publicize the results, the desired outcomes are essentially the same: commend the legislator for being a “champion” or shame him or her for being opposed to the particular issue. Unfortunately, scorecards are a lot like eating McDonalds: it sounds good at first, but you quickly regret it. The problem with legislative scorecards is they fail to hold anyone accountable, often are highly misleading, and are more likely to offend than to sway votes on a particular issue or bill.
Legislative scorecards improperly focus on the wrong voting event. As a bill moves through the legislative process, it can be voted on over a dozen times. For example, Assembly Bill 1110 (Friedman), changing rental increase notices from 30 to 90 days, was voted on multiple times before it encountered a Floor vote (where all members of the Assembly or Senate vote on the legislation). Those previous committee votes are important, as they require the bill to get through a smaller voting threshold (usually a majority of nine members) and often are where legislation is heavily amended. By the time the bill reaches the Floor of the house, many of the controversial components have been removed or addressed by the author. Voting for a bill that has been neutered is not the same as supporting legislation in its original version. And quite apart from this perspective is the fact that some members are sick or absent during Floor votes. But a scorecard will likely not take those possibilities into consideration or provide the context to a reader.
Legislative scorecards fail to highlight the negotiations and discussions occurring between the committee hearings. The policy committee is where a bill is vetted and comprehensively discussed by all impacted stakeholders. The policy committee would be the perfect place to hold a legislator accountable for his or her vote, but for the fact that these committees are comprised of only 9-16 members. A scorecard in that instance might show, for example, that some Democrats are anti-housing, but it would fail to properly contextualize a particular Democrat against the rest of the Legislature. For all we know, the scorecard would give the illusion that some Democrats hated our issues when it could be that they are actually far more moderate on them than their colleagues.
Furthermore, what if a Legislator voted on a problematic bill because of a commitment by the author to address our concerns in future amendments? The scorecard would not be able to note whether the author fulfilled his or her end of the commitment. This is the case in AB 1482 (Chiu). David Chiu promised the entire Assembly he would amend his rent control/rent cap bill to address the California Association of REALTORS® issues in the Senate. Arguably, his commitment to fellow members of the Assembly resulted in the bill being sent to the Senate for vote. In that instance, a scorecard would only show the final vote, unless it sought to show votes on both versions and that would only result in confusion for readers.
Scorecards are more likely to offend legislators and turn them into motivated opponents than to provide reliable voting patterns. Legislators often hate scorecards because they make them look as if they are opposed to an issue without painting the full picture. For example, a teacher turned legislator may vote against an education bill because of one particular component and then be labeled anti-teachers. That type of watered-down analysis frustrates legislators.
Legislators appreciate being able to say they are 100 percent on an issue. Yet, to truly be 100 percent requires advocacy groups to advise legislators of which bills will be considered for scorecard purposes. As a result, for example, a reader of a scorecard will believe certain legislators are voting 100 percent with educators even though those same legislators could have voted against education funding in another bill that was simply not prioritized in the scorecard.
The bottom line on legislative scorecards is that they should be viewed skeptically, or, to borrow another metaphor, they should be taken with a grain of salt.
Ron can be reached at email@example.com