Raleigh, N.C. — In the waning hours of this summer's legislative session, House lawmakers voted on Senate Bill 847, which tweaked a series of local tax laws and altered how senior resident Superior Court judges are appointed. The bill had been returned as part of a conference report, meaning the House and Senate had negotiated a compromise and this was the final time members would have a say on the bill.
The original vote: 93-19.
Shortly after the vote was taken, two members stood. Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, asked that he be recorded as voting "no" after initially voting "aye." Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland, asked that he be recorded as voting "yes" after initially voting "no."
The final vote: 93-19.
House lawmakers asked, and were granted, permission to change their vote 583 times over the 2011-12 legislative session. The Senate clerk's office does not record statistics on how many times lawmakers in that chamber switch their votes, but it does happen.
Earlier this year, the Associated Press detailed how votes are switched after the fact in a number of state legislatures. And it noted one case in which North Carolina Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, changed his vote two weeks after the fact.
But by far the most notable mistaken vote in recent North Carolina history involved one that could not be changed.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, made a mistake that allowed a bill paving the way for natural gas drilling – the so-called "fracking bill" – to pass. She was unable to change her vote because it would have changed the outcome of the legislation.
House Rule 24 allows members to seek "leave of the House" to change a vote, but "such leave 16 shall not be granted if it affects the result."
Had Carney been able to change her vote, it would have been the 11th time she had done so in two years. While that puts her near the top in vote changes, it is Floyd who leads the list of vote changes with 24 over a two-year period.
"When you're in session, you're multitasking," Floyd said this week. Attempting to talk to colleagues about the measure currently under consideration, gathering information on the next bill on the agenda and asking constituents what they think about a particular item can distract members, he said.
It's worth noting that the House took 1,801 recorded votes over two years. While that means at least one member changed his or her mind – or asked to be recorded after failing to vote at all – on roughly 30 percent of the bills, of the 205,914 individual votes cast by individual lawmakers the error rate was under one-third of 1 percent.
Still, House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said he was looking at changing the way votes in the House are conducted if Republicans return to the majority after the fall elections. Currently, he said, House members get about 10 seconds to record their vote on a bill.
"I'm seriously considering extending the limit to may 15 seconds or 20 seconds, but when it's done, it's done," Tillis said during a recent taping of WRAL's "On the Record."
"I think sometimes people go, 'I really didn't want to vote for it, but I wanted it to pass, now I'm going to vote against it.'" Tillis said. "There's all those kinds of dynamics going on, which I think are a distraction and time consuming.
"So I'm very seriously considering when we come back next year just extending the time and making sure that we say, 'Please, look at the button you pressed at least once over that 10-, 15- or 20-second period – that it's the button you expected to press. There's a green one and a red one."
Sometimes it's not the choice between red and green that's the problem, Floyd said. The House chamber is a cavernous room and members are not always in their seats when a vote is called. Sometimes, members are just outside the room speaking with lobbyists or staff.
The time allotted, he said, does not always allow a member to reach their seat, which is why many of the vote changes are requests to be recorded one way or the other, not to change from one position to the other.
Regarding Tillis' suggestion that members get more time but just one chance to record a vote, Floyd said that would be harsh medicine. More mistakes happen during busy times, such as the end of session when legislation is moving faster than usual and bills are being amended and merged with other pieces of legislation.
"We're human," Floyd said.
Rep. Kelly Hastings, R-Gaston, changed his votes 19 times, the most of any Republican. For many of those, Hastings said, he was fighting the flu or a bad back. And like Floyd, Hastings said he was often distracted by last-minute efforts to learn more about legislation.
And there's a matter of calls from his 12-year-old daughter.
"She starts missing her dad now and then," Hastings said, noting that legislative sessions take lawmakers away from home for roughly four days a week. "Whether we're in the middle of session or not, I try to take that call."