House of Delegates floor

Members work during a lengthy floor session of the House of Delegates inside the Capitol in Richmond on Feb. 26. Some legislators don’t vote to avoid being held accountable for a position on a controversial bill.

When a bill repealing the ban on same-sex marriage came up on the floor of the Virginia Senate for a vote, Sen. Lionell Spruill got up from his seat and left the chamber.

After the vote, the Democrat from Chesapeake came back onto the floor. He left again before a vote on a bill banning the controversial practice of “conversion therapy,” which tries to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

After the Senate passed that bill in January, Spruill emerged from behind a door and took his seat. He stood up again and exited the chamber when the Senate voted to allow a person to receive a new birth certificate to reflect the change of sex without the requirement of surgery.

He left the floor again when the Senate voted on a bill requiring the state Department of Education to develop model policies for issues affecting transgender students.

All of these bills related to the LGBT community passed the Senate that day. Spruill didn’t vote on any of them.

“No issues,” he said later that day when asked if there were reasons why he didn’t vote. He did not elaborate.

Members of Virginia’s General Assembly cast thousands of votes each regular legislative session during committee meetings and on the floor of the House of Delegates and Senate. They’ll reconvene Wednesday for the one-day session to consider amendments from and a veto by Gov. Ralph Northam in sessions relocated outside the Capitol building because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The public mostly focuses on whether or not bills pass, and sometimes people take note of when a legislator breaks ranks from the party. What receives less scrutiny, though, is when legislators in attendance miss or deliberately skip votes.

It’s tricky to tell when that happens, and it can be best tracked by people watching the floor proceedings in person. That’s what The Roanoke Times did this past legislative session to informally monitor when legislators skipped floor votes. A reporter observed both chambers throughout session when legislators ducked votes.

Legislators’ votes are all maintained online for public review on lis.virginia.gov. Whenever legislators don’t vote — whether it’s because they were absent that day, deliberately skipped a vote or were away from their desk and didn’t intend to miss a vote — those actions are all labeled the same way online, with an X. So it’s hard to determine why legislators didn’t cast votes, especially when they were present that day.

From observation, legislators appeared to intentionally skip votes on most days of the regular session. They don’t all do it, and some do it more often than others.

“It certainly has come up before in conversation,” Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said about dodging and missing votes. “I think all of us, including myself, have probably missed votes. What is harder for the public to understand is what influences why someone chooses not to vote. It happens for a variety of reasons.”

The practice is so customary that the House and Senate have rules for legislators to follow if they want to deliberately not vote on a bill. In the House, the delegates can remain seated at their desks and not vote. Senators are supposed to walk off the floor. They call it “taking a walk,” and it can lead to scenes of senators scurrying off the floor and peeking out the door from the room where the food is stationed to see if it’s safe for them to come back to their desk.

The reasons legislators don’t vote varies. Some legislators when approached wouldn’t talk about why they didn’t vote for a bill. Ten people were asked about missing votes, and only three offered an explanation.

Not voting is a way to avoid being held accountable for a position on a bill. Dozens of times through the session, legislators missed voting on bills on issues such as gun control, LGBT rights and the removal of Confederate monuments.

Some legislators don’t vote as a form of protest. In the most dramatic example of this, nearly all of the Republican senators as well as a few Democrats stood up and walked off the floor to protest a candidate for a circuit court judgeship in Roanoke.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, didn’t vote for the Clean Economy Act, an energy omnibus intended to get Virginia to zero-carbon emissions by 2050. He said the legislation didn’t rise to the level of urgency needed to combat the climate crisis. He supported Rasoul’s Green New Deal proposal that died.

“We had a chance to do this the right way with HB 77, the Green New Deal Act,” Samirah said. “After a year of advocacy and hard work, the bill made it through two committee hearings, only to be buried without a floor vote by insider politics.”

One of the more unusual cases that happened this past session involved Republicans trying to take away Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax’s opportunity to break a tie vote. Fairfax, a Democrat, casts the deciding votes in ties, and it’s something the lieutenant governors look forward to doing, especially on high-profile legislation.

One morning in March, the Senate was voting on a bill to allow some Northern Virginia localities the ability to fine retail stores for abandoned shopping carts. To prevent Fairfax from breaking an anticipated tie, Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, walked off the floor so the bill would pass. When the Senate redid the vote on the bill, Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, instead wandered into a backroom to avoid voting for it.

Then there are times it doesn’t seem like legislators meant to miss votes. Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, emerged from a backroom with a cookie right as the Senate was voting on a bill about collecting signatures for political candidates, and he didn’t make it back to his seat in time to vote. The Senate redid the vote, and Edwards voted in favor of it.

Sometimes legislators wander off the floor for several minutes to speak to someone outside the chamber and miss a handful of votes. Or they’re talking to someone on the chamber floor and miss a vote. That typically occurred with bills not expected to have narrow votes.

Dels. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, and Will Wampler, R-Washington, were discussing a bill at Kilgore’s desk when the House was voting on an uncontroversial bill about stormwater management. They both missed the vote on the bill that passed 97-0.

Kilgore is one of the most frequent users of a form legislators can fill out to explain how they would have voted on a bill they didn’t vote for. He completed statements for many of the bills he didn’t vote for because he was absent, but he didn’t fill out any forms for bills he didn’t vote on when he was present. These entries don’t have the effect of adding or changing a vote, but they offer an opportunity to show constituents where they stand on legislation.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, didn’t cast a vote for a bill while sitting in his seat and mouthed to a reporter that he was pressing his button but it wasn’t working. He walked off the floor another time for a bill that allows people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as a juvenile to be eligible for parole once they serve at least 20 years of their sentence.

“My mind blanked,” Suetterlein said when approached in the hall that day about why he didn’t vote. “I couldn’t remember the details of the bill and how I wanted to vote, and I didn’t want to vote on a bill I wasn’t certain about.”

When the proposal came up on a later date for another vote in the Senate, Suetterlein voted against it.

Suetterlein pointed out he wasn’t the only senator who skipped votes that day.

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