Analysis: Skipped Votes in Chicago’s City Council, Remote Meetings vs. In-Person

A Better Government Association Policy Team analysis of City Council's voting patterns found a sharp increase in missed votes after meetings went remote during the pandemic.

Chicago City Hall (Timothy Neesam/GumshoePhotos)

Members of Chicago’s City Council have been marking themselves present for meetings but failing to cast votes when called upon, a BGA Policy analysis found, despite council rules requiring all members present to vote unless recused under conflict-of-interest laws.

For this analysis, the BGA Policy Team looked specifically at meetings held and votes taken since Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s and the current City Council’s May 20, 2019 inauguration through the end of May 2022. A vote was considered to be “missed” if an alderperson had identified themselves as present for the quorum call or other first roll call vote of a meeting, and then at a subsequent roll call vote in that same meeting failed to cast a “yea” or “nay” vote or recuse themselves.

Among BGA’s findings:

  • Missed votes per meeting increased significantly during remote meetings for both the full City Council and its committees.

  • Along with an overall increase in missed votes, the number of alderpersons missing at least one vote also rose significantly after remote meetings were implemented.

  • Rates of missed votes dropped back to roughly pre-pandemic levels when City Council resumed in-person meetings but have continued to climb in committees, which still meet remotely.

  • The number of alderpersons marked present but missing a particular vote increased for controversial, high-profile votes, such as police misconduct settlements and the mayor’s asset seizure and gas card ordinances.

  • One of City Council’s most commonly used parliamentary procedures results in alderpersons being recorded as “yea” votes on unanimous items after they’ve left a meeting. This creates inaccurate voting records and hides absences from the public record.

Rates Rose During Remote Meetings; Dropped After In-Person Resumed

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois Open Meetings Act was amended to allow legislative bodies to meet remotely in times of declared disaster. Governor J.B. Pritzker first declared a statewide disaster covering all Illinois counties in April 2020, and as of this article’s publication has continued to extend the proclamation monthly, meaning that all legislative bodies in the state have the option, but not a requirement, to conduct remote meetings.

Chicago’s City Council first began meeting remotely on April 15, 2020, and resumed in-person meetings on Sept. 14, 2021. The council’s committees also went remote in April 2020, but have not resumed in-person meetings except for a very small number of special sessions held on the same day as council meetings.

In meetings of the full City Council, alderpersons who recorded themselves as present for the first roll call missed, on average 0.85 votes per meeting during in-person, pre-pandemic meetings. During remote meetings, the average rose to one missed vote per meeting, a roughly 18% increase. Rates at the in-person meetings of the full City Council that resumed in September 2021 have fallen back to roughly pre-pandemic levels, with 0.87 missed votes per meeting.

In committee meetings, the rate of missed votes rose from 0.34 per meeting to 0.51, a 49% increase. Committees have not resumed regular in-person meetings, and have not seen the dropoff in missed votes seen for the full City Council meetings since September 2021. During the same period, the rate of missed committee meeting votes continued to rise, with 0.87 missed votes per meeting of committees that fell within the September 2021 to May 2020 time period.

Overall, the BGA Policy Team found 254 instances of alderpersons being recorded as present at the start of a meeting and missing a subsequent roll call vote since May 2019. Roughly two-thirds of those missed votes occurred during remotely held committee meetings.

More Alderpersons Missed Votes During Remote Meetings

Missed roll call votes have become more widespread among alderpersons as well as more frequent overall.

Prior to the pandemic, only 11 individual alderpersons had missed at least one vote in council after being present for quorum, and 20 had missed at least one in committees. After remote meetings were implemented, 17 missed at least one vote in council and 38 missed at least one vote in committees. Only seven of the 50 alderpersons this session have cast an active vote in every contested roll call vote taken at meetings for which they were present.

In the chart below, votes missed during remote meetings are shown in red, with the relatively fewer number of missed votes at in-person meetings shown in blue:

As shown in the chart, nearly all of the alderpersons who had already missed votes prior to the implementation of remote meetings missed more once meetings went remote, and 17 alderpersons who had not previously missed any votes missed at least one during remote meetings.

Missed Votes Were Frequently on Controversial Items

In the majority of cases, missed votes were a case of a single alderperson who had been present for roll call failing to respond. However, a number of controversial or politically sensitive committee votes drew higher-than-average absenteeism, including:

  • Budget Committee (April 20, 2022): Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s “transportation assistance program” gas card giveaway, with 31 alders present for quorum but only 27 voting (Not voting: Gregory Mitchell, David Moore, Matthew O'Shea, Chris Taliaferro and Anthony Napolitano)

  • Zoning Committee (March 22, 2022): Demolition at 843 N Wolcott, which was opposed by the local alder, Daniel La Spata. The item passed over La Spata’s objection in a rare rejection of aldermanic prerogative, with 18 alders present for quorum but only 13 voting (Not voting: Pat Dowell, Moore, Michael D. Rodriguez, Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Scott Waguespack)

  • Public Safety Committee (Feb. 17, 2022): Lightfoot’s asset seizure ordinance, which passed in committee but was deferred in Council, with 19 alders present for quorum but only 14 voting (Not voting: Mitchell, Patrick Daley Thompson, Michael Scott, Emma Mitts and Tom Tunney)

  • Zoning Committee (Jan. 26, 2021): Department of Housing’s multi-unit preservation district, which prohibited single-family or two-flat construction in much of Pilsen, with 19 alders present for quorum but only 14 voting (Not voting: Dowell, Roderick Sawyer, Moore, Felix Cardona and Brendan Reilly)

  • A number of high-profile police misconduct settlements in the Committee on Finance:

    • Grayer & Holt v. Chicago (Jan. 24, 2022): 34 present for quorum but only 26 voting (Not voting: Brian Hopkins, Ed Burke, Raymond Lopez, Jason Ervin, Taliaferro, Gilbert Villegas, Nicholas Sposato and DebraSilverstein)

    • Bonds v. Chicago (Jan. 24, 2022): 34 present for quorum but only 26 voting (Not voting: Hopkins, Mitchell, Burke, Lopez, Taliaferro, Carrie Austin, Villegas and Silverstein)

    • Bailey v. Chicago and Bachelor v. Chicago (Jan. 24, 2022): 34 present for quorum but only 27 voting (Not voting: Hopkins, Mitchell, Burke, Taliaferro, Austin, Villegas and Silverstein)

    • Harris v. Chicago (Jan. 24, 2022): 34 present for quorum but only 28 voting (Not voting: Hopkins, Sophia King, Burke, Taliaferro, Villegas and Silverstein)

  • Rios v. Chicago (Dec. 7, 2021): 33 present for quorum but only 31 voting, including two who were not present for quorum (Not voting: Moore, O'Shea, Ariel Reboyras and Villegas)

  • Franklin et. al. v. Chicago (Feb. 22, 2021):, 34 present for quorum but only 28 voting (Not voting: King, Mitchell, Cardenas, O'Shea, Scott andMitts)

  • Anderson v. Chicago (Feb. 22, 2021): 34 present for quorum but only 27 voting (Not voting: King, Mitchell, Beale, Cardenas, Scott, Mitts and Silverstein)

  • Green v. Chicago (May 18, 2020): 34 present for quorum but only 28 voting (Not voting: Hopkins, King, Curtis, O'Shea, Tunney, Silverstein)

In several of the above cases, alders who missed a potentially controversial vote had recently cast a vote on another item or on a procedural motion. Examples include the multiple settlement votes at the Jan. 24, 2022 Committee on Finance meeting, or the Feb. 17, 2022 asset seizure vote, in which Alds. Mitts and Tunney voted against Ald. Lopez’s motion to table the item only minutes before failing to vote on the ordinance itself.

‘Previous Roll Call’ Motions May Obscure Aldermanic Absences

Chicago’s City Council conducts the majority of its legislative business by unanimous consent. Most legislation is passed using a “previous roll call vote” motion, a legislative copy-paste maneuver in which the body agrees to approve the item under consideration using the list of “yeas” and “nays” recorded on a previous item, usually the initial quorum roll call or the first unanimous approval of a committee report.

After that first benchmark vote is taken, full roll calls with each member actively giving their “yea” or “nay” response are typically only taken for contested votes. Apart from those rare roll call votes, which make up less than one half of one percent of all the votes in City Council, alderpersons who were present for the initial roll call can be recorded as voting “yea” on the rest of the meeting’s business without actively participating.

In remote meetings, the viewing public cannot tell whether an alderperson who fails to respond to a roll call vote has left the meeting, is having microphone or connection issues or is choosing not to respond (in violation of council’s rule that all members present must cast a “yea” or “nay” vote unless recused).

The BGA analysis raises concerns for City Council’s long-term record-keeping: If items are being recorded as passed with the affirmative vote of all alders present for the first roll call vote of the meeting, but the record of contested roll call votes shows alders missing votes partway through meetings, at least some items are being affirmed on behalf of alders who may not actually have been present when the relevant item was called.

BGA Recommendations

Voters ultimately will decide whether their representative skipping votes constitutes a dereliction of duty. However, there are simple, easily-implemented reforms City Council could institute that would ensure a more accurate voting record and help curb mid-meeting absenteeism:

Resume in-person meetings

The Open Meetings Act, as amended during COVID, allows for but does not require remote meeting. Legislative bodies are only supposed to meet remotely, even during declared disasters, when an in-person meeting “is not practical or prudent.”

With City Council already meeting in person, it’s difficult to argue that there is somehow something imprudent about committees returning to normal, in-person sessions. Committee chairs should follow the mayor’s lead and resume in-person meetings.

Standardize vote reporting, including ‘not present’ totals

The city clerk’s office provides “Attendance and Divided Roll Call Votes” reports for City Council sessions, which list the tracking numbers and roll calls for any items that were subject to contested votes. In addition to yea and nay votes, the roll call records list any members absent, recused or present but not voting.

Committees keep separate records, commonly called the “Rule 45” reports in reference to their establishing section of City Council’s rules. The quality and detail of Rule 45 reports varies widely from committee to committee, including several found by the BGA Policy team that record roll call votes as having taken place but do not include an actual roll call with names of alders and their “yea” or “nay” vote.

Requiring committee staff to use the same attendance and divided roll call vote record as the city clerk’s office would create a far more reliable and easily-accessed history of votes, including missed votes by alderpersons recorded as present for the meeting.

Require remote meeting minutes to include log-ons and log-offs

If City Council committees are to continue meeting remotely, the meeting minutes should include not just a verbal roll call but also an attendance record of individuals logged into the remote meeting tool, and an entry into the minutes for any disconnections or log-0ffs during the meeting.

Whenever a “previous roll call vote” is used to pass new business, committee chairs should ensure that all members on the referenced roll call vote are still present in the remote meeting tool before affirming the motion. If a member who was listed on the original roll call vote has since become absent, a new roll call vote should be taken.

None of these steps require legislation or face any obstacles to immediate implementation. Committee chairs can and should resume in-person meetings and standardize voting records across the board. Ideally, those new standards and absentee voting would be announced publicly, so voters may know the policy for each committee and hold alderpersons accountable for their presence during votes–one of their most important duties in office.

Lead image: "Chicago City Hall" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Timothy Neesam (GumshoePhotos)

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