How a lawmaker’s mistaken vote put North Carolina on a path toward fracking

jfrank@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2012 

— The look on state Rep. Becky Carney’s face said it all.

She looked horrified. Embarrassed. Sick to her stomach.

Moments earlier, the Charlotte Democrat had cast the deciding vote to override Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto on a bill establishing the framework for natural gas drilling through a process known as fracking.

Now she stood in the middle of the House floor with her mouth agape. In shock. “Oh, my God,” she said on the floor. “It won’t let me change my vote.”

The problem? She opposed the bill – voted against it weeks earlier – and now she made it law.

This is how North Carolina approved one of the most consequential and controversial pieces of legislation this year. By mistake.

When Carney went to vote at 11:04 p.m. Monday she hit the wrong button on her desk. The 10-year veteran punched the thumbnail-sized green button that says “AYE” just above the red one that says “NO.”

Carney scrambled to reverse her vote, but Republicans blocked it. Democrats called the move “disgraceful.”

House Speaker Thom Tillis said he was comfortable with the process. “There’s a green button and a red button, they should know which one to push,” he said.

Afterward, standing in the unflattering glow of television camera lights, this is what Carney said happened:

The vote took her by surprise. Republicans limited debate on the fracking legislation – Senate bill 820 – and called the vote. Green button to override. Red button to sustain.

Carney hit the button. She looked upward to the scoreboard above the desks that shows the results: 72 to 46. The color next to Carney’s name matched the Republicans. Not her fellow Democrats.

She panicked. She hit another button to turn on her microphone and called to the House speaker on the dais. Tillis didn’t recognize her. So she rushed to the front, 20 steps from her seat in the eighth row down the red-carpeted middle aisle.

Carney asked the clerk to check her vote. Green. Override.

She then asked Tillis if she could change her vote. Tillis said House rules prevented it.

Even though lawmakers cast mistaken votes all the time, they are not allowed to reverse them if it would affect whether legislation wins or loses.

Carney rushed back to her desk and called to the speaker. She wanted to ask the House waive the rules – not an uncommon procedure – to allow her to change her vote.

Tillis didn’t respond. He went quickly to majority leader, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, who asked for a “clincher vote” to essentially seal the verdict and prevent reconsideration of the vote. It passed.

For all the arm-twisting and political horse-trading Republicans used to get a handful of Democrats to void their party leader’s veto, they won by accident.

“You ever see my golf game?” said state Sen. Bob Rucho, a bill sponsor, after the House vote. “It’s based on luck, not on skill.”

A vote without a pre-determined outcome is rare in the state legislature. But Republican leaders took the chance, not knowing if they had the three-fifths supported needed to override.

Carney apologized to her colleagues. She felt horrible – and upset. “This late at night, tired and an important vote of this magnitude, I should have been allowed that courtesy” to change the vote, she said.

The 67-year-old self-described homemaker is no stranger to voting. She served on the Mecklenburg County Commission for three terms before being elected to the N.C. General Assembly in 2002. At one point, her name was mentioned as a possible candidate for Charlotte mayor.

She served as a key Democrat when the party held power and suffered cardiac arrest in her legislative office in 2009, returning to serve just months later.

One other Democrat knows how Carney feels. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, cast a decisive, mistaken vote last year to support term limits for legislative leaders, allowing it to pass the House. But in her case, the bill didn’t become law because the Senate never considered it.

Carney’s vote is different. And she knew it.

Just before midnight, as the House took a break, her Democratic colleagues offered a consoling hug and sympathetic sad faces. Soon the TV cameras and reporters arrived.

In her decade in Raleigh, she told reporters, this is the first time she voted wrong. She took full responsibility.

“I made a huge mistake,” Carney said. “I pushed the green button instead of the red button.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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