Voting procedure

By

 Updated:

What should a lawmaker with personal stakes in a bill do when the time comes to vote on it?

The answer varies widely among the states and even differs between the House and the Senate in some, the Center for Public Integrity found in a survey of procedures for handling conflicts of interest during legislative votes.

Most states apply one of three rules when lawmakers face conflicts of interest.

The most common is simply to require that they abstain from voting.

The second most popular: Granting conflicted lawmakers explicit permission to abstain if that is their preference. Explicit permission is important because many states prohibit lawmakers from abstaining except in exceptional circumstances.

The third and least common approach is to require lawmakers to vote despite conflicts of interest.

To make things even more complicated, legislative chambers vary widely in the procedures by which they implement these rules. For example, in some chambers a lawmaker must request the formal permission of his or her colleagues to abstain, even when it is required by law. The purpose is often to review the reported conflict to make sure it is subject to the law.

Of course, a legislator can always avoid these dilemmas by not showing up for work on the day of the vote.

The Center also reviewed whether states require legislators to make a public report when they have a conflict of interest in a bill. All but three states require legislators to file general disclosures of their incomes once a year, but announcing a conflict in a particular issue as it comes up is a separate matter. In many states, legislators disclose the existence of a conflict but don't explain exactly what is causing it. Others require more detailed reports.

The fundamental question, of course, is how a conflict of interest should be defined. The vast majority of states see no problem when a legislator would benefit or suffer from a bill but the effect is not unique to him or her, or to a narrow group of which he or she is a member. Several states distinguish between conflicts of interest that are mild and those severe enough to require that legislators abstain. Others rely on legislators themselves to determine whether conflicts compromise their judgment.

States balance the threat of a conflict of interest against the principle that legislators have a right—or a duty—to represent their constituents on every issue. The Center found that in most states, the definition of a conflict of interest or the abstention rules are tilted toward ensuring that legislators are not excluded from voting unless it is necessary.

The rules are generally contained in at least one of three sources—constitutions, statutes and internal legislative rules.

Abstention rules
StateMust abstain or request to abstain in some conflictsChoose or request to abstain only for conflicts/other special reasonsMust vote despite conflict
Alabama  
Alaska  
Arizona  
Arkansas   
California  
Colorado  
Connecticut  
Delaware  
Florida  
Georgia  
Hawaii  
Idaho  
Illinois   
IndianaX (House) X (Senate)  
Iowa  
Kansas  
Kentucky  
Louisiana  
Maine  
Maryland  
Massachusetts  
MichiganX (Senate)   
MinnesotaX (House) X (Senate)  
Mississippi  
Missouri X (Senate)  
Montana X (House) X (Senate) 
Nebraska   
Nevada  
New Hampshire  
New Jersey  
New Mexico  
New YorkX (Senate) X (House)  
North Carolina  
North Dakota  X  
Ohio  
Oklahoma  
Oregon  
Pennsylvania  
Rhode IslandX (House)   
South Carolina  
South Dakota  
TennesseeX (House - only if interest unreported)   
Texas  
Utah  
Vermont  
Virginia  
Washington  
West Virginia  
Wisconsin  
Wyoming  

Must disclose conflicts
StateAlwaysIf interest not previously reportedIf voting
Alabama  
Alaska   
Arizona  
Arkansas X (Senate) 
California   
Colorado  
Connecticut   
Delaware  
Florida  
Georgia   
Hawaii  
Idaho  
Illinois   
Indiana  X (Senate) 
Iowa   
Kansas   
Kentucky  
Louisiana  
Maine   
Maryland  
Massachusetts  
MichiganX (Senate)   
Minnesota  
Mississippi   
Missouri  
Montana  
Nebraska  
Nevada  
New Hampshire  
New Jersey   
New Mexico   
New York   
North Carolina   
North Dakota  
Ohio   
Oklahoma  
Oregon  
Pennsylvania  
Rhode Island  
South Carolina  
South Dakota   
TennesseeX (Senate)   
Texas  
Utah  
Vermont   
Virginia   
Washington  
West VirginiaX (House)   
Wisconsin   
Wyoming  

 

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now