"The Technology" | Image by EDE
Baltimore's city budget passed Monday after two City Council meetings, a meeting of the Board of Estimates, and a committee meeting in a side room. The council voting-contentious and surprising at one key point-was so fast and furious that even with a score card it was hard to tell what had happened. At one point, Councilman Nick D'Adamo (D-2nd District) was unsure how he had voted-or how it had been recorded by Legislative Reference. He got up from his seat to check and confirmed that his votes had been recorded the way he had intended.
This prompted Councilman Bill Henry (D-4th District), who sits next to D'Adamo, to point at a strange framed thing set high on the opposite wall: a vertical rectangle of darkness with what looked like big white elevator buttons running down its left side, looking incongruous in the ornate marble chamber. Everywhere else there are filigrees and dark wood and mirrors. This thing is mounted off center, too high for a portrait, wrong shape for a TV screen. It looks like it should be ductwork.
Turns out it's a vote board-a kind of scoreboard for legislators. Theoretically, they press a button on their desks and their vote appears up on the screen like the answers of a game show contestant.
"That hasn't been used in the 20 years I've been around" City Hall, Henry says. "Anecdotally, they installed it, thought it would be a good idea, and then stopped using it immediately because people were not happy about being so easily spotted." That was in the mid 1970s, he says, circa the Carter Administration.
He shouts over to Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector (D-5th District), the acknowledged "dean" of the body, who has served since 1977. She says the vote board has never been lit since then.
City Council voting habits are a revelation to newcomers. The "roll call votes" are done without any discernible motion or sound from council members; the clerk simply reads the members' names at auctioneer speed and the council president moves on. Occasionally a council member shouts out a "no" or an "abstain," prompting the council president to pause to announce that the record should reflect that. These dissents are so rare, unanimity so common, that an observer is soon lulled into accepting the council's frenetic, opaque style. But not everyone is always satisfied.
Henry says he's had correspondence with NAACP President Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, who was concerned that he couldn't research city council votes on the internet the way he could with state legislative votes. The votes are, in fact, available online but only obliquely. The City Council journal is published in PDF format, two or three weeks after each meeting. The votes are recorded therein.
The staff of the city's Department of Legislative Reference will confirm vote tallies as well (and has said that these do not always match perfectly those made in council sessions). You just have to call them or visit their office in City Hall.
It's a way for the council to be "transparent" without being too transparent, Henry says.
I ask Councilman Robert Curran (D-3rd District) about the speed-voting and the difficulty of keeping track of who voted for what. Curran responds reflexively: "As my brother Mike-he was a councilman-used to say, 'If you snooze you lose.' You gotta be quick on your feet in this business."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District) says she was there on the day-the only day, apparently-that the electronic vote board was used. She's not sure of the year, but she remembers it was around the time of President Jimmy Carter. She says there was a lever on each of the council members' desks, on the right side, that they would push forward to vote one way and pull back to vote the other way, and the votes-green for "yay" and red for "nay"-would appear on the screen next to the council members' names.
"We just didn't like it," Clarke recalls. "I don't remember if something was wrong with"-and here she makes air quotes-"'the technology' or not. But we just didn't like it. We just wanted to raise our hands and wave."
Or not even do that.