House Democrats accuse Speaker Turzai of making votes on defeated bills disappear

    The Pennsylvania House chamber. Image via Flickr Commons

    State House Democrats have accused House Speaker Mike Turzai, the chamber’s top Republican, of twice failing to record votes against bills he supports this week, in violation of the chamber’s rules.

    The two votes at issue involved a bill imposing mandatory minimum sentences for certain for gun crimes, sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery. The other was an amendment to a Turzai-sponsored bill authorizing school vouchers for the Harrisburg School District.

    According to House Democrats, the minority party, both measures were defeated in bipartisan, majority votes, but the final results were not recorded. 

    The House website lists the mandatory minimum bill as having been on third consideration on Monday, when the House would typically register its final vote. But no vote total is listed for the bill.

    Under the chamber’s rules, measures that are defeated on the floor cannot be voted on again unless the chamber agrees to reconsider them.

    Turzai’s actions have “the potential to subvert the democratic process,”  said Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

    Under House rules, the House speaker holds the power to call up bills for a vote.

    “Once the voting has begun, it shall not be interrupted,” the House rules read, except to question the validity of a representative’s vote or to fix a broken voting switch.

    Then, according to House rules, the speaker may close the vote after “reasonable time has been allowed” for all representatives to vote, after which the Speaker must announce the vote total.

    Voting must not be open longer than 10 minutes, and is typically held open for five to ten seconds. 

    On Tuesday, Turzai opened the vote on an amendment to his voucher bill, according to a Twitter video posted by House Democratic communications staffer Nick Malawskey.

    In the video, Turzai uses the wording that the House rules prescribe to open a vote. But after 24 seconds, Turzai asks the clerk to “strike the vote.”

    The phrase does not appear within the House rules. Senior Turzai aide Neal Lesher called the complaints “much ado about nothing.”

    Lesher said that the speaker can strike a vote to let additional members speak even after a vote has begun. He did not specify where in the rules the power lies.

    After Tuesday’s not-vote, Democratic leadership asked Turzai for clarification, according to a video posted by Malawskey.

    Turzai said he provided a ruling and moved to adjourn the session. House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris entered Turzai’s office briefly after the House session ended Tuesday. He declined to comment on what they discussed during the visit.