2021 Rules Amendment #3: Reduce the Roll Call Threshold

What does the amendment do?

  • It lowers the number of Reps required to force a vote to be recorded from 16 to 8 .

You can read the full language of our amendment here.

How do we stack up to other states?

Floor votes are not recorded in the Massachusetts House of Representatives unless 16 reps stand and request it, creating a huge barrier to votes being recorded . And even though we’re a blue state with a Democratic supermajority, we have a higher threshold than 40 other states!

(In the chart below, Massachusetts is ranked behind 3 other states who also require 16 Reps in normal circumstances, because state house rules require a set percentage of elected representatives while these other states require a percentage of present representatives. Reps are not always present in session every time a vote is recorded, so in circumstances where several Reps aren’t present, there would be fewer reps required to stand for roll call.)

MA has a higher threshold than 40 other states

Why does this matter?

Needing 15 of your colleagues to be present in the chamber and stand to support you is an organizing challenge for reps, especially on matters that directly challenge leadership. In most cases the rep will withdraw their amendment without trying to get a roll call vote on it, so we don’t know how many amendments would have been debated if the threshold were lower.

We got a rare glimpse of how hard this process can be back in January of 2019, when Rep. Russell Holmes asked for a roll call on an amendment which would have reversed the pay raise for Reps enacted in 2017 and made the salary for all reps equal. When he asked to record this vote, the initial count turned up only 12 reps willing to stand for this, so the chair declared an insufficient number of reps stood and the vote wouldn’t be recorded. After some confusion on the floor, someone shouted that there was support, and a court officer can be heard saying “You already counted. Insufficient. Do you want to give it to him?” The chair relented and announced that they would record the vote.

A functioning democracy requires that we know how our reps are voting on issues that affect us. It’s unclear if reps simply didn’t stand fast enough to be counted in this case, or if the chair took pity on Holmes and decided to “give it to him” - but the foundations of our democracy shouldn’t depend on the goodwill of the chair, or how fast the State Reps can jump to their feet.

If you’ve ever watched a session, you’ll see that there can be hours of downtime with nothing happening while decisions are being made behind closed doors. Very little public debate actually occurs in the House. Making it easier to record votes would force reps to debate on the record, which is is vital to a healthy democracy.

What are the arguments against this?

A number of Reps have already signed up to support this amendment, but we are hearing some arguments against it from various Reps.  Below you’ll find the most common arguments Reps have made against this amendment and ways to respond:

1. “This would slow down the process too much and gum up the works.”

  • A recorded vote only takes a few minutes. Reps have buttons on their desks where they can press to record their votes, and it all shows up on a big board on the wall. This is not a lot to ask.

  • During the pandemic, these votes take a little while longer, but the House has been able to act quickly on all matters brought to the floor during the pandemic, including the controversial police reform bill.

2. “This just doesn’t matter, no one has failed to get a roll call this session who asked for it.”

  • As we pointed out above, Russell Holmes was almost denied a recorded vote in January 2019 on an amendment that was only supported by democrats.

  • And the larger problem is that most Reps don’t even try. The vast, vast majority of amendments are withdrawn without debate, without a vote. For many Reps, the fear of being embarrassed by not having 16 stand to support them discourages them from even trying.

3. “This is only something that Republicans care about.”

  • Not true. Making our democracy work is something everyone of all parties can support, and greater transparency is popular

  • In 2020 when leadership tried to raise the roll call threshold to 40 some of the loudest voices speaking out against the change were progressive lawmakers who understood that this would hurt their ability to debate.

4. “Some extremist Republicans would be more likely to offer offensive amendments that would attack vulnerable immigrants and other marginalized people. This would help them get these votes recorded.”

  • There are 31 Republicans in the House, which is almost double the amount you need to get a recorded vote anyway. They already have the ability to get roll call on the issues they care about. This amendment will help progressive legislators the most, who don’t have their own formal party structure to organize within.

  • If there are amendments that don’t have the support of 16 GOP Reps but do have the support of 8 Reps, then there is nothing to fear from a public vote. If a member wants to offer an extremist rightwing measure and record how little support there is in the legislature for it, that will be a clear public rebuke of the position. We shouldn’t be afraid of publicly rejecting hateful amendments.

5. “This is only something Republicans care about because it would help them filibuster Democratic priorities.”

  • This isn’t a partisan issue. Voters across the state care about this issue regardless of party. When other transparency amendments were offered in January 2019, many progressive lawmakers voted for it because they realized making it easier for constituents to know how they were voting helps us win progressive priorities.

6. “This doesn’t matter because the rules can just be waived.”

  • It’s not really possible to “suspend” a rule that specifies the number of reps who need to stand in order for votes to be counted.

7. “I’ll wait until the draft rules are out.”

  • You don’t need to wait because our proposal takes the current rules as the starting point, and that is the same as what the temporary rules committee will do at the beginning of next year.
  • The draft rules will only be public a few days before the vote, and it’s likely to be in the midst of other important deadlines for you like the co-sponsorship deadline. Waiting will ensure there isn’t enough time to build support in the chamber to pass this change.

8. “You know I’m on your side. This stuff is just complicated, so you have to trust me.”

  • Asking reps to support these amendments doesn’t at all imply that we mistrust them! We want to be up front about what we expect to see changed, and unless reps have a good argument why you oppose this change, we’d like to see them commit to supporting it.

Want to know who’s committed to vote in favor of Amendment #3 so far? You can learn more at www.ActOnMass.org/the-campaign .