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Posted at 05:17 PM ET, 05/12/2011

House Democrats trade paper for iPads in counting votes


(Laura J. Gardner - AP)
The century-old process of rounding up votes on the House floor is about to get a makeover.

House Democrats have developed a new electronic process of tracking how members plan to vote on key pieces of legislation, replacing the previous system of using paper cards.

The electronic system, which is currently in the testing stage but which aides say will likely be employed on the next key vote for members, was spearheaded by the office of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), House Democrats’ chief vote-counter.

“I happen to be somebody who is kind of a techie, so the opportunity to use the app and walk around and check members off, it’s just much more efficient,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), one of the members of House Democratic leadership who have been testing the software over the past several weeks. “It makes it so that we can get information much more quickly to the staff, and we can round votes up much more quickly.”

For the past 100 years or so, each party in each chamber has had a whip operation, which consists of the party’s number-two or number-three leader as well as a handful of other members.

In addition to coordinating closely with party members and leaders on legislative issues and strategy, the party whip operation springs into action whenever a critical piece of legislation is about to make its way to the floor, polling members on how they plan to vote and, when necessary, engaging a little political arm-twisting.

Traditionally, each side keeps track of its members’ positions through paper cards distributed to a team of “chief deputy whips.” Ahead of any vote on a key piece of legislation, the team of chief deputy whips makes the rounds on the House floor, polling their assigned rank-and-file members on how they plan to vote and then marking those members off on their card, including those members who are undecided. The cards are then submitted to the whip office, which tallies the vote count in an electronic database.

The process, while time-tested, can at times be cumbersome. Often cards can get lost; each party’s whip office staff must manually input information from the cards; and members of the whip team may not turn in their cards until they’ve received answers from all the members for whom they’re responsible.

House Democrats say that their new electronic system eliminates many of those problems and makes for a more streamlined process. The software program that Hoyer’s office has developed, which is available for Blackberry, iPhone or iPad, will for the first time allow House Democrats’ nine chief deputy whips to poll their members and send the information to the whip office in real time.

Wasserman Schultz and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), two of the chief deputy whips involved in testing the software, said Thursday that they both believe the program is a significant improvement over the paper-based system.

“The old way was very mundane,” said Butterfield, who like Wasserman Schultz has been testing the program on an iPad. “You had eight or ten names on a card, and you would have to walk around the chamber and look for the member and ask the question. And once you completed that roundup, then you would find someone from the whip staff and turn your card in. But now, we can do that in real time, and we can even take notes.”

Butterfield added that the new program doesn’t replace person-to-person contact -- “If you really want the best information, you get it directly” – but that it simplifies the process of conveying that information to leadership.

House Republicans – who have also embraced new technology, most recently through their “YouCut” program on spending cuts – will continue to use the paper-card system, a House GOP leadership aide said.

Of course, the fact that Democrats are in the minority during this Congress means that they will likely have less sweating to do than Republicans when it comes to votes on contentious issues. Even so, the new technology could come in handy for legislative maneuvers such as the surprise “present” vote by many House Democrats last month on a conservative budget proposal – as well as in the upcoming fight on raising the country’s debt limit.

By  |  05:17 PM ET, 05/12/2011

 
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