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Ghost Voting: California Assembly Members Caught Breaking The Rules

SACRAMENTO (KPIX 5) -- When Californians go to the polls, the rules are clear: one vote per person. But the same principle apparently doesn't apply to state lawmakers.

KPIX 5 was at the State Capitol and watched the Assembly at work during the last two weeks of the session. Lawmakers were voting on hundreds of bills. But we noticed something strange: Many votes were being cast electronically, without anyone sitting in the chair.

Recently, the Assembly voted on a bill to regulate outdoor advertising. Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez from Los Angeles was away from his seat. But we saw Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, also from L.A., voting for him.

During the same vote, we saw Assemblyman Anthony Rendon from Los Angeles County reaching back to vote for Burbank Assemblyman Mike Gatto.

Assemblywoman Diane Harkey from San Juan Capistrano was also seen voting for her seatmate, Travis Allen from Huntington Beach. All of this took place in less than a minute.

But KPIX 5 saw it happening again and again on dozens of other bills: Democrats and Republicans regularly voting for somebody else.

Later in the day, we say Gomez voting for Sawyer. And then there's Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco casting multiple votes. He stood up to speak in support of a gun control bill. Then right away he rushed back to his desk to vote not only for himself, but also Adam Gray of Modesto and Adrin Nazarian of Van Nuys.

What's going on? It's called "ghost voting." And in California it's not allowed. In the Assembly rules book it can't be clearer. "A Member may not operate the voting switch of any other Member ..." the rule states.

So what do they have to say for themselves? Rendon didn't seem to know there was a rule. "It's a custom and something you are allowed to do," he told us. We saw him ghost voting all day long. "It's perfectly fine?" we asked him. "It's perfectly fine, yes," he said.

From others, we heard various versions of what's ok and what's not. Assemblyman Isadore Hall from Compton said, "The member is required to be on the green carpet, on the floor." We asked him if the member could be upstairs in his office. "Oh no!" he said.

Even Richard Gordon of Los Altos, the head of the Assembly's Rules Committee, was confused. "Give me the definition of ghost voting," we asked him. "You know actually I don't know," he said.

Once KPIX 5 explained it he clarified. "That practice is that a seatmate, a person who sits directly next to you, may vote for you if you have given them permission to do so," he said. We asked him if a lawmaker could lean over and push the button of the person in front of him. "Essentially the people in your immediate area, like the four around you," he said.

So what about Phil Ting? After asking to talk to him and getting the brush off, KPIX 5 tracked him down at a San Francisco parking garage. "Are you allowed to vote for other members?" we asked him. "We follow the same protocols as in the building," he said. Ting even argued that ghost voting makes floor sessions run more efficiently, and left it at that.

KPIX 5 showed our video to Philip Ung in Common Cause's Sacramento office. Aside from being against the rules, Ung said the practice can lead to mistakes, even if done innocently.

He pointed out that once in a while the mistakes can seem intentional. In 2008, there was a big scandal when then Democratic Assemblywoman Carole Migden cast a vote for a fellow Republican lawmaker without their permission.

Ghost voting does not take place in the California State Senate. There is no electronic voting and votes are cast by voice during a roll call.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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