Ken Plum: Casting a red light

Virginia was one of the first states to use an electric voting machine as a way for legislators to cast their votes without the need to call the name of all 100 delegates and 40 senators and having them “voice vote.” Beginning in 1964 Virginia installed an electric voting board with member names and red and green lights to indicate how members voted using a switch at their desks. That system was replaced with an electronic voting machine that continues to display “yea” or green votes and “nay” red votes. A yellow light is a way for legislators to indicate that they have a conflict of interest that keeps them from voting on a paraticular measure.

Since the legislative process is largely a consensus process, the overwhelming majority of votes are green votes. With the sharp ideological differences that have developed among legislators in recent years, casting a red light or a nay vote has increased. I must have set an all-time record for my years in the General Assembly last Tuesday when I voted against 31 of the 74 bills on the regular or contested calendar. All of the bills passed on a mostly partisan vote. Of the bills I voted against, nearly half were Arizona-style anti-immigrant bills that among other things would have put local police in the business of enforcing federal immigration laws. It is not likely that any of these bills will pass the Senate. Another bill I voted against would have defined a fetus as a person beginning at the moment of conception. This bill is also likely to be defeated in the Senate. Its implications would be far-reaching: Would birth control be considered a form of abortion? Would property rights extend to the unborn fetus? These were two among many questions.

On another day I voted against the House version of the Governor’s transportation plan. The plan would push Virginia to its debt limit with more than four billion dollars in borrowing. The limited funds it provided would not have built one interchange in Fairfax County and would have taken more than $150 million from schools. I know that some people in the district have heard about this vote from a robo-telephone call. The vote is one step in a long legislative process that I am confident will result in some money for transportation while we await the Governor’s promised proposal next year for a more permanent solution to our needs.

The red light I cast on the House version of the budget came because of the more than $93 million cut in funding for public schools and the significant reductions in monies for mental health, especially among young people. As with all bills that pass each House in a different version, a conference committee will resolve the differences, and a final vote will be taken. Send your comments on how I should cast those votes to me at

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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