New Jersey lawmakers routinely skip votes, driving demands for reform

By: - October 12, 2021 7:07 am

The New Jersey Assembly chambers in the Trenton statehouse (Photo by Dana DiFilippo)

Voting on bills is one of the most impactful actions a state legislator can take, but dozens of New Jersey lawmakers skipped more than 10,000 votes in the current legislative session, a New Jersey Monitor analysis has found.

Twelve of the Legislature’s 120 lawmakers failed to vote more than 250 times each, representing almost 40% of the total 10,205 missed votes. On another 1,298 votes, lawmakers refused to support or oppose a bill, officially recording their votes as abstentions.

These numbers could climb higher, because lawmakers will return in November for a short lame-duck session, a busy time when dozens of bills could land on their desks for a vote before the current two-year session ends Jan. 11.

Missing votes doesn’t necessarily mean a legislator is shirking his or her duty.

Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera is a Democrat representing the 4th District in Camden and Gloucester counties.

New Jersey’s Legislature is a part-time legislature, with lawmakers meeting just a few times a year to consider and vote on hundreds of bills. The state Constitution requires them to be “personally present” to cast a vote. That means if illness or injury keeps them home when the Legislature is in session, they could miss dozens of votes a day.

“Public officials are human, and they do have personal lives. We all understand that things happen that can prevent folks from casting a vote,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

Some of the legislators who racked up hundreds of missed votes cited health emergencies to explain their absences.

Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera (D-Camden) missed 564 votes, the most of any legislator. But that was largely because she had a high-risk pregnancy of triplets, spokesman Kevin McArdle said.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), with 342 missed votes, said he had heart and kidney surgeries, and Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Hunterdon), who missed 266 votes, said he had heart surgery.

Assemblyman Ronald Dancer is a Republican who represents Monmouth County’s 12th District.

Illness kept Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-Monmouth) home for two days in June, when the Legislature is especially busy and moves many bills because the state budget is due by July 1. He consequently missed 251 votes in just those two days, spokesman John Kingston said.

Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), who missed 391 votes, said she was absent for several voting sessions because she was home tending to her partner, who died in August after battling Alzheimer’s and cancer.

These seven Assembly members skipped more than 250 votes:

  • Gabriela Mosquera (D-Camden), 564.
  • Annette Quijano (D-Union), 446.
  • Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), 342
  • Adam Taliaferro (D-Salem), 324
  • Erik Simonsen (R-Cape May), 279
  • Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester), 267
  • Ronald Dancer (R-Monmouth), 251

These five senators skipped more than 250 votes:

  • Nia Gill (D-Essex), 391
  • James Holzapfel (R-Ocean), 345
  • Michael Doherty (R, Warren), 278
  • Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), 274
  • Kip Bateman (R-Somerset), 266

Senators can only abstain in committee. On the floor, they must vote yes or no, or not vote. That’s why Assembly members, who can abstain on the floor, have more abstentions than senators. These five legislators, all in the Assembly, abstained the most:

  • Jay Webber (R-Morris), 83
  • Gerard Scharfenberger (R-Monmouth), 82
  • Erik Peterson (R- Hunterdon), 79
  • John DiMaio (R- Warren), 72
  • Robert Auth (R-Bergen), 69

 

An incentive not to vote?

Still, some watchdogs suspect many lawmakers deliberately skip votes when they disagree with legislative leadership, a strategy to avoid their anger — and retribution.

Julia Sass Rubin is a board member of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey and a professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

“I think the no-votes in part reflect the powerlessness of New Jersey state legislators to vote their conscience,” Rubin said.

New Jersey’s legislative leadership is “very powerful and punishes disobedience,” Rubin added. “They have the power to take away chairmanships and remove legislators from committees, as well as not moving legislators’ bills or helping to fund their campaigns through leadership PACs.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney, for example, removed Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) from the judiciary committee in 2018 after Stack sided with Gov. Phil Murphy over Sweeney during an intra-party fight (Stack was put back on the committee in 2020). Sweeney also booted Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen) off a few committees for opposing leadership’s efforts to end the religious exemption for childhood vaccines.

Angering leadership can have even more seismic consequences for a legislator than losing a committee seat — it can cost them their office entirely, Rubin said.

That’s because county party leaders, often influenced or directed by the Legislature’s leadership, control which candidates get the “party line” on election ballots, giving their favored candidates an advantage at the polls. Candidates not on the party line typically get defeated in primaries.

“Not voting the way leadership wants can have a real cost for legislators,” Rubin said. “As a result, when faced with a vote they don’t want to take, some choose not to vote at all.”

A 2017 study backed up Rubin’s suspicions. Researchers at Brigham Young University studied absenteeism in state legislatures and found that legislators avoid participating in close or major votes because of re-election concerns. Officials in legislatures with shorter sessions, as New Jersey has, tended to skip votes more often, researchers found.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo is a Democrat who represents the 28th District in Essex County.

Caputo acknowledged defying leadership is “a tough thing to do,” although he said that wasn’t what kept him from voting.

“I have been at this a long time. I do whatever I think is right for my constituents,” he said. Caputo served in the Assembly as a Republican from 1968 to 1972 and was elected again in 2008 as a Democrat.

Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) said he doesn’t let fear of leadership dictate his votes, saying: “We’re all big boys and girls.”

Vitale missed 274 votes this session, attributing some to medical emergencies. He acknowledged he sometimes avoids voting to dodge hard feelings.

“If you don’t support the bill, you’d rather not vote at all out of respect to the sponsor, but that typically doesn’t impact the overall result of the vote,” Vitale said.

Some lawmakers say they abstain or skip votes if they feel they have a conflict of interest, haven’t had enough time to research a bill, or support a bill conceptually but have specific concerns about the details or costs.

“If there’s a bill I agree with but some part of it that at the moment feels insurmountable — like I asked for more data and never got it — I’ll abstain,” said Assemblyman Ralph Scharfenberger (R-Monmouth), who had 82 abstentions.

Not voting the way leadership wants can have a real cost for legislators. As a result, when faced with a vote they don't want to take, some choose not to vote at all.

– Julia Sass Rubin of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey

A coronavirus concession: phone-in voting

When the coronavirus pandemic shut communities down in March 2020, legislators around the country were forced to come up with alternatives to in-person voting.

In New Jersey, legislators passed a law to allow voting by phone for the first time in state history. The state Senate and Assembly have held 17 such remote voting sessions since the pandemic started, with additional phone-in sessions added for committee voting, state records show.

A few other accommodations were made to ensure legislators could vote during the pandemic, such as allowing aides to act as proxies and push voting buttons during in-person sessions for legislators who were in the Statehouse but reluctant to enter crowded legislative chambers.

But the law only applies to states of emergency. Phone-in voting also can’t be used individually by lawmakers who can’t make it to Trenton for personal or health reasons. If the Legislature is in session and not operating remotely, votes must be made in person.

Even with efforts to facilitate voting through the pandemic, some lawmakers, including Caputo and Gill, suspect the pandemic inflated the numbers of missed votes. Specifically, they said they felt unsafe to attend some voting sessions in person and questioned the accuracy of remote voting and other accommodations.

Sen. Nia Gill is a Democrat who represents District 34 in Essex and Passaic counties.

“When we were doing in-person voting, some people like myself may have had someone at home who was medically compromised and everybody was not vaccinated, so we may have made decisions that it was safer not to go,” Gill said.

Lawmakers who got sick with the coronavirus, or were exposed to it and had to quarantine, also would have missed votes, she added.

But legislative voting records show there were just as many missed votes when there was no pandemic, with legislators skipping 10,282 votes in the 2018-2019 legislative session.

And the attorney who helped oversee phone-in voting said his office put numerous protective measures in place.

“The Office of Legislative Services is confident in the accuracy of remote voting,” said Jason Krajewski, the office’s legislative counsel.

Only three lawmakers — all from the Assembly — have a perfect voting record so far, with no abstentions or missed votes in the current session:

  • William Moen (D-Camden)
  • Anthony Verrelli (D-Mercer)
  • Sterley Stanley (D-Middlesex)

Six other Assembly members did not skip any votes, although they abstained sometimes:

  • Roy Freiman (D-Somerset)
  • Antwon McClellan (D-Cape May)
  • Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson)
  • Gerard Scharfenberger (R-Monmouth)
  • Ned Thomson (R-Monmouth)
  • Jay Webber (R-Morris)

Reforms needed

New Jersey doesn’t require legislators to publicly explain their absences. Assembly rules require their attendance, but absences are excused at the discretion of the speaker. And there’s no official limit on how many times they can skip votes or abstain.

Like New Jersey, most states don’t have even basic protections in place to hold legislators accountable to the public for missing or abstaining on votes, according to the watchdog group Common Cause.

“Legislators absolutely depend on the public not paying attention — and if nobody’s paying attention to it, it just becomes part of the culture,” said Viki Harrison, Common Cause’s director of state operations.

Legislators are elected to represent the public, so when they don’t vote or when they abstain on bills, citizens aren’t represented, Harrison said. That’s why lawmakers should publicly explain their absences and abstentions, she added.

That accountability measure exists in the U.S. Congress, where representatives can submit “personal explanations” to the Congressional Record to defend absences and say how they would have voted and why.

Extending remote voting beyond the pandemic would improve accountability by ensuring legislators can vote even if health crises or personal hardships prevent their in-person presence, Harrison said.

“That is very common in state constitutions — they require legislators to be physically present to vote. But it’s an antique rule,” she said. “Plenty of people live far away from the state capitols in many states. We need to rewrite the rules about what it means to participate, for both the public and the legislators. It’s not 1914 anymore. Why are we being so rigid and holding on to arbitrary rules that do not move our states forward, when 2021 offers so many opportunities for participation?”

Legislators absolutely depend on the public not paying attention.

– Viki Harrison of Common Cause

New Jersey’s political watchdogs don’t expect any forthcoming reforms, because that’s like asking the Legislature to police itself.

Julia Sass Rubin is a board member of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey and a professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. (Courtesy photo)

Instead, many are hanging their hopes on a lawsuit that seeks to eliminate the party line on ballots. They say that would help loosen the stranglehold legislative leadership has on rank-and-file members, so legislators feel free to vote as they want instead of skipping votes to avoid angering leadership, Rubin said.

Absent that, an engaged public is the best tool to fight for change, Burns said. Voters have a duty to learn about who’s running for public office to make sure they deserve the seat, she said.

While anyone can struggle with illnesses or personal problems that interfere with their job, lots of missed votes can be a red flag, Burns added.

“Folks need to be accountable to their constituents, and one way they show accountability is through their voting records,” she said.

You can check your local legislator’s voting record here. The League of Women Voters offers a free service, called Vote 411, where people can learn about candidates, races, polling places, and more.

“It’s not just how they vote, but when candidates don’t respond to candidate questionnaires, that tells you something. When candidates don’t show up to debates, that tells you something too,” Burns said. “You want your public officials to be transparent and accessible, and if they’re not, that tells you something.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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