You, Too, Can Navigate Our Legislature’s Website

The Sunlight Foundation has given our state Legislature’s website a failing grade — ouch. There’s also been some grumbling about the website on BlueMassGroup. One of the big complaints is the difficulty of finding roll call votes.

I am apparently in a minority of persons who think that the website is more useful than it gets credit for, although it’s certainly not perfect. So, in my first foray into the world of motivational speaking, I’m here to say that I can have you finding roll call votes in four (pretty easy) steps.

Let’s go back to 2011 and find the roll call votes agreeing to the House-Senate compromise bill that was enacted as the gambling law.

Step one. Find the relevant bill number (the one that became the gambling law).

The tan-colored line just below the State House picture has seven pull-down menus for various subjects, starting with “Massachusetts Laws.” Here’s a partial screenshot.

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We select “Massachusetts Laws,” then on the pull-down menu, we select Session Laws, and then the year 2011. We end up here.

Now our browser can search for the string “gam” (remember, the Legislature much prefers to use the term “gaming” instead of gambling,” so leave off the “b”) and there it is, Chapter 194 of the Acts of 2011, with the bill number — House 3807 — in parentheses.

Step 2. Find the history of the relevant bill, House 3807.
Back to the pull down menus, we go this time to “Bills,” and then click on “Bill Search.” We end up here.

We enter 3807 in the bill number field and we are careful to change the General Court field to the 187th Session, because this is not a current bill, but one from the 2011-2012 session. We end up here.

When we click on “Bill History,” we learn that the House accepted the Conference Committee report on November 15 by a vote of 121 to 33 and that roll vote is number 144. The Senate also accepted the Conference Committee report on November 15 by a vote of 23 to 14.

Step 3. Find the House roll call vote. Again we go back to the pull down menus and again choose “Bills,” but this time we select “Journals,” then “House Journals,” then “Uncorrected Proofs of the Journals of the Massachusetts House” (yes, the “uncorrected proofs” business is an annoying CYA on the Legislature’s part. There’s no reason the “official versions,” whatever those are, can’t be on the website; on the other hand, I have never known the website versions to be inaccurate). We end up here. Then we scroll down to “View 2011 Journals,” click and end up here. We then enter the number of the roll call, which in Step 2 we learned was as roll call # 144. And voila, the roll call in PDF form.

Step 4. Find the Senate roll call vote. We go back to the pull down menu under Bills, click on Journals, then Senate Journals, then “Senate Journals from Prior Sessions.” then choose 2011, then choose the date Nov. 15. (The House, which takes roll calls of its 160 members by machine, keeps those votes in separate PDF files. The Senate, which actually still calls the roll of its 40 members — which is why roll calls there can take longer than in the House — embeds those votes right into the Senate Journals.) We end up here, and our browser can find the relevant bill number, 3807, and the 23-14 vote.

Now, don’t you feel like a pro? Getting information about current bills is not that hard, either. Let’s say we’re interested in the issue of early voting and want to know what bills on the subject be coming up in the 2013-2014 Legislative session. Here in this partial screenshot of the website home page, on the left side of the homepage under “Search Bills and Laws,” is a quick search function. We enter the phrase “early voting.” Because we want to search only current bills and not already-enacted laws, we unclick “laws.”

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We end up here.

I find that the search engine is reasonably good at sorting by relevance, but if it returns too many results, we can refine the search further using the filters on the left side. By clicking on one of the relevant bills listed in the search results, we get the text, the bill history, the bill’s co-sponsors (under the “miscellaneous” tab), and learn that these bills are scheduled for a hearing by the Joint Committee on Election Laws on March 27 at 2:00 P.M. in Hearing Room A-1.

I hope this gets you started, though there are many other things to learn. The state budget, for example, is a category unto itself. Topics for future lessons are being accepted in the comments — will teach for website hits.

3 thoughts on “You, Too, Can Navigate Our Legislature’s Website

  1. There’s still a few problems: you need to know the bill number, title, the date that the bill was voted on in the house, AND the date that the bill was voted on in the senate. That’s a lot of information. Isn’t the point of a website to be able to increase the access to this information?

    There should, at the very least, be a spreadsheet available with all of the roll call votes. The PDFs that contain House roll calls are not easily accessed by, say, a computer program that wants to create such a spreadsheet. I recently had to compile a list of votes for a project, and it took me over 10 hours to scroll through the senate votes to find roll calls, not to mention having to manually transcribe them.

    I shouldn’t have to dig deeply through the logs just to find out how my state legislator voted, should I?

    • Precisely; it should not be this hard, and we should fix it. But meanwhile, at Progressive Mass we want to make it easier for voters and advocates to know how their legislators are voting on bills with progressive policy implications. We will be posting, soon, a tally of select roll calls from the last session, and, going forward, posting — and collating — future roll calls with progressive implications. Please stay tuned, and kudos to Hester P. for her always excellent work demystifying state government.

  2. Pingback: Massachusetts State House Flunks » Progressive Massachusetts

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