The Wisconsin state Assembly chambers extend to the bathroom and the parlor, and rules allow members to vote for each other if the member is in the chambers.
Joel Kleefisch on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 in a television interview
Wisconsin Rep. Joel Kleefisch says he didn’t break Assembly rules when he voted for 2 other members
The unidentified person with the camera phone recording the state Assembly proceedings Feb. 21, 2012, thought he scored a coup -- a chance to show the public images of lawmakers breaking chamber rules and engaging in outright hypocrisy.
The shooter saw a vote being taken and state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, stand up, reach over and press a button on his neighbor’s desk to vote on his behalf. Kleefisch then moved to the next desk and hit that missing member’s button as well.
Counting his own vote, Kleefisch voted three times.
When the video hit the Internet, it promptly drew squeals of hypocrisy.
After all, Kleefisch -- who is married to Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch -- joined Republicans to pass a new photo ID law for voting while arguing the change was needed to prevent election fraud.
The day after the video was made, WTMJ-TV aired an "I-Team" report that included the cell phone multiple-vote footage. Asked if he had broken chamber rules, Kleefisch defended his actions.
"It depends on how you interpret the rule," he said. "The rule says you have to be present in the chamber. The bathroom counts as the chamber. And the parlor counts as the chamber if you are grabbing something to eat."
Ultimately cable TV talk show host Keith Olbermann branded Kleefisch his "Worst Person in the World" for Feb. 23, 2012.
That has to sting.
But is Kleefisch actually right?
Are Assembly members really considered in the chambers when they are, um, on the chamber pot? And can members vote for colleagues who are in the chamber and not at their desk?
We emailed and left voicemail for Kleefisch to ask him to elaborate on his claim. He did not respond before this item was completed. So we went to the rule book, and consulted with a couple of experts, including those in charge of running the Assembly.
Turns out, the chamber is more than the room itself.
The written rules define the chamber as: "The entire area west of the easternmost doors of the Assembly, including the visitor's galleries, lobbies, offices of the speaker, majority leader, and minority leader, and hallways."
The rules also say: "Only the members present in the Assembly chamber may vote."
So what about the practice of voting for your neighbor?
Turns out, it’s done all of the time.
That’s not in the formal rules, as Kleefisch indicated. But, like many legislative bodies, there are informal yet powerful rules of courtesy and tradition.
And that’s where the claim by Kleefisch needs some additional explanation.
"Traditionally, we’ve done it as a courtesy," said state Rep. Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, the Assembly Speaker pro tem, whose job it is to maintain order, handling votes cast by 99 people and generally keeping business moving along during floor sessions. "Otherwise, we’d be breaking down every time we had a vote."
Indeed, he said it’s very rare that everybody present is in their seats to vote.
"It’s less than 10 to 20 percent of the time that everybody votes for themselves," said Kramer.
Only in rare instances is there a vote where each member’s name is called. More commonly, a vote is "open" for a short window, during which times members press their buttons. and their votes are tallied on a large scoreboard.
On a day when the Assembly has a lot of business to conduct, votes can begin and end in a minute or less. Strict enforcement of the "present in chambers" rule could dramatically slow down the voting process or result in many members not voting.
Sometimes the proxy voting can backfire.
That happened to state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, on the same day Kleefisch was caught voting three times. State Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, voted on behalf of Barca against a measure regarding penalties for aiding a felon. But Barca wanted to be a "yes" vote, so when he returned to the floor he asked for -- and was granted permission -- to have his vote recorded as a "yes."
Where was Barca when Pasch stepped in?
"He was in here," in his office, said aide Rich Judge. And "here" means in the chambers, because Barca is the minority leader and his office is among those included in the formal definition.
A total of seven requests for corrected votes were made by Assembly members on the day in question, Feb. 21, 2012. Business began about 11 a.m., and then there was a recess from 12:30 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Dozens of matters were then taken up in a session that lasted until 10:58 p.m., and there were more than three dozen votes taken.
From the video, it appears that Kleefisch voted for his neighbors, Rep. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, and Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, who, according to the Assembly seating chart, are assigned to the desks next to Kleefisch. Neither Farrow nor Knudson returned a telephone message to discuss their whereabouts during the vote.
There’s no indication of what matter was being voted upon.
So voting on behalf of another member is a routine practice by members of both parties.
In fact, members sometimes press the button for a colleague not even in the building.
This is done as the chamber is called to order and attendance taken -- which is, strictly speaking, not a vote but attendance.
"It was not uncommon to see one or two people punch 30 buttons," said Stephen Freese, a Republican who served 12 years as speaker pro tem until 2006.
The Assembly’s business day often begins with routine, procedural matters and special recognitions. Then there is a recess so the two parties can caucus and get their issues and votes lined up for the day. It may be hours before the body reconvenes for the real action.
In some cases, Freese said, an Assembly member might be coming from a great distance. So rather than leaving in the middle of the night to make the opening gavel, the member skips the procedural stuff but is there for the caucus and voting. Colleagues cover for him by registering him present.
Such votes usually are cast by another member of the tardy member’s party. But not always.
Said Freese: "I’ve seen that, in the case of close friendships that have developed, a Republican will vote for a Democrat and a Democrat vote as a Republican,"
Caught on video voting for his neighbors, Kleefisch claimed he didn’t break Assembly rules. The chambers, he said, extend beyond the floor, and include hallways, a parlor and the bathroom.
He’s correct, but that’s only part of the story. As Kleefisch said, "It depends on how you interpret the rule." The rules are clear on what is the chamber, but don’t specifically allow the vote-for-your neighbor approach. However, that is the longstanding, informal tradition of the body.
We rate Kleefisch’s claim Mostly True.