Progressive Mass Legislative Scorecards

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1. It's About Transparency

2. Voice Votes vs. Roll Calls

3. What Comes Up for a Vote: The Role of Leadership and Committees

4. More than the Final Bills: Amendments

5. Putting Together a "Scorecard"

6. FAQS --got a question/concern? Check here first!

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It's About Transparency

We believe that Democracy functions best when there’s transparency. And, our Massachusetts Legislature functions best when citizens know what votes our elected officials are taking and when we can compare their actions to their rhetoric. But on Beacon Hill, that’s not such a straightforward proposition.

Citizens can be forgiven if they assume that tracking a State Legislator’s voting record would be easy as we are accustomed to with votes of our US Congressional representatives, which are all public and easily researched. Want to know where your legislator stands on actual votes? “Just google it!” We live in the age of information, after all.

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Finding your legislator’s voting record, and understanding it, can be very difficult and time-consuming.

With our “progressive scorecards,” finalized at the end of every 2-year legislative session, we aim to make it easier.

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Voice Votes vs. Roll Calls

It’s important to understand that unlike in Congress, most votes are NOT recorded person by person. Rather, most Beacon Hill legislation is passed on a voice vote. Though you can find out whether a certain bill or amendment passed or not, there is no paper trail telling you how your specific legislator voted when it’s a voice vote.

Some votes, however, are ROLL CALLED, which means there is a record of each legislator’s Yea or Nay (or abstention). Roll Calls are only taken when a legislator requests it -- which can be discouraged by the culture of the chamber -- and that request is supported by other members. Reasons for a roll call include:

  1. The vote is close, and it is unclear, by voice, where the majority stands.

  2. The chamber’s leadership wants a historical record of an important vote. (the vote is popular)

  3. Members want to highlight, with an official record, differences between their positions. (the vote is contentious)

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What Comes Up for a Vote: The Role of Leadership and Committees

It’s also important to know that the bills that make it to the floor for an actual vote are decided by a process well outside the members’ actual votes. And, what makes it to the floor is largely a reflection of the will of Leadership in the respective Chambers (House and Senate). Leadership includes, in the House, the very powerful Speaker of the House and the Chairs of committees. In the Senate, it is the Senate President.

So, it’s quite possible that excellent progressive policy gets stalled in committees -- and never appear for a vote and therefore cannot be measured or scored.

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More Than Final Bills: Amendments

Also important in assessing Beacon Hill members’ records is understanding the distinction between votes on amendments and votes on the final bill. In a context (such as on Beacon Hill) where the outcome of a bill is largely determined well before it reaches the floor (as described above), adding amendments to a bill that does make it to the floor is one way to affect what policy gets passed.

This is why, in a context where (we argue) generally more conservative legislation is favored by the Legislature, it’s important to look for amendments as a way to find places where a bill could be made more progressive -- or less so -- and to take the measure of where legislators stand when they had that chance. The importance of amendments in assessing legislators requires a degree of investment in the minutiae of legislation that is not accessible for even a savvy and plugged in citizen. 

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Putting Together a 'Scorecard'

To make a progressive scorecard from legislators’ votes, then, we are limited to the votes that were roll called (a minority of total votes), and from these, those votes that are relevant to our priorities as progressives.

Among this limited pool of roll calls, we prioritize inclusion of those votes that were more contentious or were especially consequential, and those amendments that could have substantially improved results of a final bill.

For every roll call we include in our scorecard, we articulate the “progressive position.”

You may not agree.

For instance, in 2015, we scored the Senate’s vote to apply the cigarette tax to flavored cigars, which had previously been excluded from that tax. Because of its disincentivizing function, and the negative health costs (both financial and medically) of tobacco, combined with closure of a loophole exploited by corporations (tobacco companies), we counted a vote FOR the tax as the “progressive position.”

However, one might argue that because tobacco consumption taxes are largely regressive (have disproportionate financial costs to poorer population), we should not include the vote -- or even score a vote for the tax negatively.

There is always room for interpretation and context, and we invite you to dig deeper into all of the votes we score, including contacting your legislators to get their perspectives.

On our tally, a “plus” sign means the elected official voted with the progressive position. A “minus” sign means they voted against the progressive position. "NVP" means that they voted present, i.e., an abstention. "NV" means that they were absent for the vote (and thus "not voting"). "N/a" means that a vote is not applicable because a legislator was no longer or not yet in office (or, in the case of the Senate President, opted not to vote). Abstentions and absences are counted the same as votes against the progressive position (4/2018 update: unless they submit a letter to the Clerk, as shown in the House/Senate journal, about how they would have voted had they been present). Showing up is a vital part of members' job, and we can't give them credit when they're not there.

Explore, share, dig deeper... 

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2019-2020: 191st General Court [mid-term scorecard]

Previous Scorecards

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Help get the word out

* What you see in our Scorecards and accompanying materials and analysis are the result of many, many hours of hard work by dedicated volunteers. Research, interviews, coding, data input, reviewing, designing, coordinating, investigating, editing and intensive consideration and deliberation. Our scorecards are unique and are having the impact we seek: giving voters access to obscure info that is necessary to keep legislators accountable.

Please support this work with your contribution. With more resources, we can make improvements on many fronts, including design and interactivity. You can also support our work by sharing it, with attribution to Progressive Mass:

Showing 2 reactions

commented 2018-12-11 20:16:56 -0500 · Flag
Studpid question: The legislators serve at our pleasure; we pay their salaries, benefits, expenses, salary increases, and whatnot. As their employers we are in our right to demand transparency. What can be done to shine light on ALL legislative votes, and demand roll call universally?
commented 2018-01-04 17:45:30 -0500 · Flag
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