Psst – I’m taking off – cover for me, wouldya?

The Minnesota House has a casual vibe when it comes to voting

By: - May 4, 2023 6:05 am

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Amanda Hemmingsen-Jaeger, DFL-Woodbury, vote for their absent seatmates on April 27, 2023. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer

The Minnesota House’s hours-long floor sessions are often mundane and monotonous, the chamber regularly half full at best. But when members get to voting on an amendment or a bill, the chamber suddenly looks as bustling as a bee hive.

Members press the green and red voting buttons at their desks to cast a “yes” or “no” vote. But some of them aren’t just recording their own vote. Many stretch, lean over and press the voting buttons for their seatmates, who are gone.

Then, a handful get out of their seats to make sure all the empty seats around them have a vote cast.

Where are the missing members? And why are they surrendering their vote to their seatmates?

House members say voting for one another is a longstanding practice and no cause for alarm — though it’s technically against the rules.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, doesn’t believe the practice compromises the legitimacy of the vote.

“They are the member’s vote,” Hortman said, adding that there are often times her own vote is cast by someone else while she is negotiating with fellow leaders. “It’s a way to allow members to be human beings while they’re doing their job.”

Still, many concede that the House — always the more casual chamber of the Minnesota Legislature — is seeming loosier and goosier since the pandemic. 

House members, with less than three weeks left in the 2024 legislative session, have endured the breakneck speed of the DFL trifecta pushing bills through the Legislature. Some have continued to rely on the remote voting option, which was first implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread until this year.

Members are able to vote remotely with permission from the speaker, but that has created its own new parliamentary loophole.

Here’s how: During a floor session, members are able to request a “call of the House,” meaning all members must be present on the floor. 

This procedure has rarely been used this session, however, because the House chief clerk ruled there cannot be a call of the House when there is a remote member, and there often is.

Without a call of the House to force them back to the House floor, lawmakers are often in their office in the next building over, the retiring rooms just off the floor, using the restroom, eating a meal, or in meetings working on legislation.

And perhaps more alarming: Some have left the Capitol campus altogether while their seatmates do their voting for them.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said it’s become an increasingly common occurrence for some House members of both political parties. 

“It feeds into the increasing polarization and lack of attention at the Capitol. It’s not a criticism of one person or one party — I may or may not have done the same thing myself — but it’s a culture thing,” Garofalo said. “It’s something that I think both parties should work together on to reduce in the future.”

Hortman said a few members have left the Capitol mid-floor debate this session, but she declined to name them. She said one member left the Capitol during a floor session because of a child care emergency and another left to pick up their dinner to avoid a DoorDash delivery fee.

An unofficial agreement

The House on Feb. 16 was about five hours into a debate on a bill granting workers paid sick and safe time off, when Rep. Isaac Schultz, R-Elmdale Township, asked if St. Cloud Democrat Dan Wolgamott would answer a question.

Hortman responded that Wolgamott wasn’t on the floor. 

About an hour later, Republicans requested a call of the House to get members on the floor prior to voting on an amendment. They suspected Wolgamott had actually left the Capitol complex. Hortman denied the request because a member was voting remotely over the phone, so a call of the House was out of order.

About 30 minutes later, Wolgamott could be seen on the floor at his desk, and a Republican member asked him a question.

Wolgamott responded by asking Hortman what bill they were discussing, which furthered suspicions that he’d been AWOL.

Contrary to Republicans’ suspicions, Wolgamott told the Reformer, he was eating dinner in one of the leadership offices near the Minnesota Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol.

“I have no idea why they thought I left. I’ve never once in my life left the Capitol during session — I would never do that,” Wolgamott said. ”Literally any Republican could’ve just texted me … I thought the whole thing was pretty stupid to tell you the truth.”

After this incident, Hortman and Republicans leaders came to an informal agreement about a parliamentary workaround, creating an unofficial call of the House when there is a member voting remotely. The House majority or minority leader may approach the speaker and make the request to require everyone in their seats. The members then message each other to come to the floor.

The House is generally much less formal than the Senate. House members can eat snacks on the floor, while senators are only allowed to have water at their desks (a recent rule change from when even water was prohibited).

And the casual dress of some House members would raise eyebrows at Sunday services. 

Senators also do not vote for one another. Recording senators’ votes can often take a few minutes, because the Senate’s sergeants-at-arms are in the retiring rooms and meeting areas around the Senate chamber ensuring senators vote.

When asked about the contrast, Hortman replied: “They’re very stuffy.”


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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.