Answers to Tally Board’s Failure Likely This Week

Posted August 10, 2007 at 5:36pm

House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) likely will meet with the Clerk’s office this week to nail down what caused the voting system on the House floor to go down two days before recess.

An investigation into what happened was launched almost immediately by the Clerk’s office after the Aug. 3 incident, in which the electronic tally board suddenly went blank during a procedural vote. That forced officials to stop votes for nearly an hour to repair the system.

That investigation was not complete by Friday but is expected to be finished by the time officials meet with Brady. In the meantime, plenty of ideas as to the cause of the blackout have circulated around Congressional halls, from a staffer accidentally tripping over the plug to a disgruntled Member toying with the system to cause further chaos.

But as of Friday, there were not yet any official answers.

“Nobody is prepared to speculate what the causes were,” said Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee.

“It’s clearly an issue that is of concern,” Anderson added. “I think the chairman just wants to get to the bottom of the situation.”

The voting board blackout came at a time when partisan tensions already were at a boiling point.

Republicans had spent much of their day alleging Democrats mishandled a procedural vote on the fiscal 2008 Agriculture spending bill the night before, altering the outcome to defeat the measure.

So by the time Members got back to work, things already were behind schedule.

The tally board suddenly shut off in the middle of the afternoon, during a procedural motion to adjourn. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) eventually threw out that vote and ordered a recount, which was held once the system came back online.

After the meeting with officials from the Clerk’s office this week, Brady will decide whether the situation warrants anything further from the committee, Anderson said.

Either way, another panel is likely to investigate the vote blackout. A special select committee was formed in the aftermath of the Agriculture bill vote, that will produce an interim report on the incident by Sept. 30 and a final report by Sept. 15, 2008.

Made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, the panel will focus mostly on the late-night incident. But the voting system meltdown probably will be brought up as well.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who serves as the ranking member on the House Administration panel, said Republicans on the committee will be prepared to cooperate with the select committee in looking at the voting board blackout.

“The GOP members of the committee certainly express the concern that was expressed by [Republican] leadership last week,” spokeswoman Salley Collins said.

Members have cast their votes electronically for more than four decades.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 authorized the installation and operation of an electronic voting system in the House chamber, according to Adam Holmes, the manager of operations and emergency preparedness at the Clerk’s office.

Its first use took place on Jan. 23, 1973.

“Of course, since then, the system has undergone several technological upgrades,” Holmes said.

The electronic voting system itself is fairly complex. The system’s main computer is located on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. An electronic link runs to the House chamber, operated by the tally clerk.

When Members call a vote, the tally clerk enters the information for the vote into the system, which effectively starts the vote.

There are 46 voting stations throughout the chamber, which include proximity card readers. All Members have their own voting card, which they insert into one of the readers and then press one of three buttons on the station — yea, nay or present.

During the vote, electronic tally displays in the chamber are updated to reflect the current vote. When the vote ends, the tally clerk stops the vote, turning off the displays. The final vote is then recorded into the system.