A sculpture of Montana Territorial Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher guards the Capitol in Helena.

When Montanans talk about absentee voting, we usually mean making decisions on specific ballot issues or candidates in advance of Election Day. Voters know their choices before they mark their ballot.

There's another type of absentee voting that we haven't heard much about: the practice in of Montana legislators voting by proxy. That's right, our elected lawmakers don't have to be present to vote on legislation. On any given day in the 90-day session, an unlimited number of representatives and senators may be excused and direct their party leaders to vote for them.

The vast majority of our citizen legislators are dedicated to working every day the Legislature is in session, and casting their own votes after considering information presented in hearings, debates and amendments. However, there is no law that compels our legislators to be present for any votes, except for final passage — known as third reading, according to Susan Byorth Fox, director of Legislative Services.

Lawmakers are required to put their proxy instructions in writing, Fox said, adding that some notes are much more specific than others. 

In the 2019 session that ended last month, Rep. Dale Mortensen, R-Billings, was absent for several weeks while his votes were cast by Republican leaders in the House floor sessions and committees. He also was paid $462 weekly salary and $120 a day for living expenses during his absence, the same compensation state law provides for all lawmakers during the session.

The Gazette called Mortensen this week to ask about how he used proxy voting during his absence, which he said lasted about a month and was due to a medical issue that he declined to specify out of privacy concerns. He said he is still recovering his health, but doing well. He said his absence was unforeseen and due to getting sick.

Mortensen also was absent or excused from voting 261 times, missing more than 33% of the votes taken on the house floor during the first 45 days of the session, according to research by Gazette reporter Tom Lutey. He was still absent and voting by proxy two weeks later, when the Gazette opinion editor visited the Legislature in the third week of March.

Yet Mortensen said his Billings Heights constituents were well represented during his absence. "I don't think I would have voted any differently," he told The Gazette. He wrote a note assigning his proxy to committee vice chairs. "You pick a person you think like," he said. "I was able to monitor what was going on," through occasional phone calls and email.

House and Senate proxy rules raise serious questions for Montanans. Should the people we elect to represent us be allowed to put their votes on autopilot? Do voters intend for their senator and representative to vote the party line every time — which is what happens with proxy votes?

Would we have better decisions if lawmakers were required to be present for all their votes? To know what they are voting on before they pass judgment?

The present system allows each party to be guaranteed a certain number of votes even when members are absent. Is party line voting preferable to requiring each member to think for herself or himself and be in attendance?

Proxy voting isn't new to the Montana Legislature, and Mortensen isn't the first lawmaker to use it during an absence that stretched for weeks of a regular session. However, as lawmakers are called upon to make important, increasingly complex decisions, it's time to consider whether the old rules get us to the best legislative decisions.

If only lawmakers present could vote, there might have to be fewer committee assignments, but each member would be better informed. There might be fewer votes cast, but lawmakers would have a greater incentive to attend floor sessions and committee meetings. This is a conversation worth having during the interim and the 2020 legislative campaigns.

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