By Jennifer Kraus
NASHVILLE, Tenn.- One person, one vote -- it's the whole premise behind our democratic election process.
But a NewsChannel 5 investigation has found that some state lawmakers often cast more than one vote on important pieces of legislation. That ghost voting, as some call it, happens in the House chambers probably a lot more often than you think.
Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed the controversial voter ID law aimed at eliminating voter fraud.
At the time the legislation was up for consideration, Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, told other House members, "You should be who you say you are when you go vote."
But when it comes to their own votes, we found House members not only vote for themselves, they also vote for others who are not in their seats. And, sometimes, believe it or not, they even vote for members who are not even there.
Political watchdog and radio talk show host Steve Gill had no idea this was going on.
"I think this is a fraud on the taxpayers," Gill told NewsChannel 5 Investigates. "I think this is a fraud on the people of Tennessee.
"That's not what they were sent there to do."
But Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, insists it's no big deal.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Ford, "You don't think this is important?"
"No," he replied. "This is neither illegal or immoral. There's nothing wrong with it. It's done all of the time."
It's such a common practice in the House, in fact, that many lawmakers have sticks they use to reach each others' voting buttons.
"I'm disgusted by it, " Gill remarked, after seeing our video.
And we found, lawmakers are not just voting for each other. When the clerk takes roll, lawmakers scurry around pushing the buttons of others so that even those who are not there are marked as present.
At one recent session, according to the official record, everyone was there. The House clerk announced, "Madam Speaker, 99 members present."
But by our count, more than a dozen seats sat empty, including Rep. Lois DeBerry's.
Later, the Memphis Democrat insisted, "No, I wasn't here late."
"You didn't get here late?" we asked.
"No, about 5, about 5:15," DeBerry claimed.
But she was actually 40 minutes late. And when she wasn't there, we watched as her seat mate former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, voted for her.
Naifeh later explained, "She had called me to let me know she was running late."
Days earlier, DeBerry didn't even show up. Yet, according to the official House record, not only was she there, but she cast nearly two dozen votes.
During roll call, Rep. Joe Townes, D-Memphis, first clocked her in. And, not long after, Naifeh did the same thing.
And, throughout the morning, we watched as he continued to vote for her again and again.
A couple of days later, we asked DeBerry, "So, how often do you ask him to push the button for you?"
"Oh, not often. Not often. I'm always here," DeBerry replied.
"You're always here?"
"I'm always here."
"And, when you're not here?" we asked.
"I'm always here," DeBerry insisted.
But DeBerry's office confirmed she was not there that day. Yet, voting records from that day show she voted to lower the sales tax on food and eliminate the so-called inheritance tax.
Steve Gill couldn't believe it.
"I think people are going to be disgusted to realize that their legislators aren't actually casting the votes they come back during election time and proudly claim, 'I passed that bill. I pushed that bill," he said. "You didn't even push your own button."
And it's not just Democrats.
Another day, we watched Republican Dale Ford clock in his seat mate, Rep. Dennis Roach, R-Rutledge, and then vote for him again and again.
In all, Roach cast a dozen votes that session without ever stepping foot in the chambers. And, when he finally did show up, an hour and a half late, Ford then cleared his desk and left for the night, leaving Roach to vote for both of them on the final few bills.
Afterwards, Roach wouldn't talk about it and repeatedly told us "no comment" before even hearing our questions.
Several days later, we caught up with his voting partner, Rep. Ford, who had no problem with what they did.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You voted for Rep. Roach when he wasn't here?"
Ford quickly and angrily responded, "And I'll do it again. I'll do it again. If he has a meeting, he'll call me or I'll call somebody. It don't matter who you call. We'll do what we can to help each other."
That's prompted talk radio's Steve Gill to say, "It's not too much to ask that they show up for work and do their jobs."
Gill said lawmakers should focus on voting for their constituents, not each other.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates then asked Ford, "Do you think this is what the voters sent you here to do?"
"Yes," he answered. "They sent me here to... In fact, I don't have to answer to Channel 5. I do answer to my voters and if they've got something to tell me, they'll tell me. Not you."
The legislative rules say all members casting votes are supposed to be in their own seats. But lawmakers say that rule is rarely enforced.
The House clerk told NewsChannel 5 that this courtesy is given to lawmakers so they can get up to take care of legislative business or even go to the bathroom.
This story has already generated a lot of buzz on Capitol Hill in this final days of the session and even some fallout.
The morning after NewsChannel 5 Investigates confronted Lois DeBerry about not being there for a session, she asked the House clerk's office to take back the pay she'd received for that day.
In addition, the House clerk told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he has now asked the leaders of both parties to remind their members to be in their seats at all times unless there are extenuating circumstances.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates has repeatedly asked to talk with House Speaker Beth Harwell about what was found going on in the House Chambers under her watch. Her office has repeatedly turned down our requests, saying she is too busy.
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