Interior photo of the Massachusetts Statehouse;
Interior of the Massachusetts Statehouse; photo by Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Amendments to make committee votes public die without vote despite overwhelming public support

February 2, 2023

Editor’s Note: The following article is derived from officially released information, published with few or no editorial changes. The Greylock Glass  occasionally provides our readers with such content if the information is factual in nature, and requires little to no interpretation or analysis, often when original reportage would not provide additional relevant information.

BOSTON, Mass. — The Massachusetts House rejected two amendments to make all committee votes public information during the vote on House Rules and Joint Rules on Wednesday afternoon, despite widespread public support across the Commonwealth. 

87% of voters polled support publishing online the full results of all votes taken in legislative committees, according to the results of non-binding ballot questions in 35 state house districts over the last two years. The good governance watchdog organization behind the ballot questions, Act on Mass, finds that these results demonstrate a mandate from the public to implement transparency reforms immediately.

“This is a perfect illustration of why we so desperately need this reform in the first place. The irony of an amendment meant to make more of our legislator’s votes visible to the public dying with an unrecorded vote is not lost on us,” said Erin Leahy, executive director of Act on Mass. “As a good governance watchdog, our goal at Act on Mass is to shine a light on the canyon between what voters want and believe and what their state house is doing. The legislature’s refusal to publish committee votes is a perfect example of this disconnect that is, frankly, anti-democratic.”

Totaling over 200 pages, the rules packages were made available to advocates and lawmakers just 24 hours before coming to a vote, and with under five hours to file amendments. By refusing to bring the amendments to a vote, the Massachusetts House denied legislators the opportunity to represent the will of their constituents on the House floor.

In addition to being widely popular among the electorate, publishing committee votes is standard practice in a majority of other states as well as in the Massachusetts State Senate. For this and other reasons, the Massachusetts State House is consistently ranked among the least transparent statehouses in the country. Along with a growing movement of advocates, researchers, and former legislators, Act on Mass pinpoints the opaque committee process as key to the concentration of power on Beacon Hill. 

With no requirement that committee votes be available to the public, the current rules have enabled legislative committees to evade responsibility for the outcome of committee deliberations, which often kill progressive legislation with little explanation as to why. Publishing committee votes online allows constituents to hold legislators accountable to their stated beliefs and to participating in the process in a transparent manner.

“When legislators vote in secret in committees, they are incentivised to vote with leadership and can avoid the scrutiny of their constituents,” said Brenna Ransden, organizing director for Act on Mass. “How are we supposed to hold our elected officials accountable to our beliefs and values if we can’t see how they’re voting?” 

Act on Mass has been the main organizing force behind progressive good governance reform in the Commonwealth for the past few years, allying with Indivisible Mass Coalition, Sunrise Boston, Mijente Boston Asamblea, Our Climate, and Mass-Care.

Through the efforts of this coalition, transparency reform has become a hot-button issue in state house races throughout the state. Recently, an increasing number of Democratic state house candidates have run campaigns that center state house reform as a core component of their platforms. 

In response to the failure of the House to represent the will of the electorate, Act on Mass will announce a suite of legislative priorities to continue the fight for transparency throughout the rest of the two-year session.

“When I talk to voters about this issue, most people are shocked to learn they don’t automatically get to see all of their representative’s votes,” said Hewon Hwang, a volunteer with Act on Mass who helped collect signatures for ballot initiatives in the 14th Middlesex district. “Making committee votes public resonates with people, especially during this political moment. A healthy democracy isn’t something we can take for granted – even here in Massachusetts.”

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Act on Mass is the leading organization advocating for transparency and accountability in the Massachusetts State House. In November of 2020, they launched The People’s House Campaign–their cornerstone initiative advocating for three pro-democracy amendments to the state house rules. The campaign has received the endorsement of dozens of advocacy and community organizations, and the support of over 4000 volunteers across the Commonwealth. In addition to the Campaign, Act on Mass circulates their Voters Deserve to Know Pledge, and keeps their members informed about state house goings-on via a weekly newsletter called the Saturday Scoop.

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