SACRAMENTO — Although 28 members of the California Assembly supported a measure to allow new oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast, their votes are nowhere to be found in the official state database.
After the measure failed, Assembly leaders expunged the vote altogether, sparing lawmakers running for reelection an official record of their controversial decision. The voting logs made available to the public on the Legislature's website do not indicate who voted for and against the bill on July 24.
It wasn't the first time the Assembly has done this. The little-known practice of purging votes, which experts say serves little purpose other than to allow lawmakers to hide actions from the public, is quite common in the lower house, legislative records show. In the last six years, 71 votes on bills in the Assembly have been cleansed from the record.
"The message to the public is 'this vote was an inconvenient vote and we would rather you not look at the man behind the curtain,' " said Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine), who wrote the oil drilling bill.
Other Assembly officials defend the practice, saying that only a tiny fraction of about 5,000 votes in a typical two-year session are wiped off the record. They said there are also occasions when a vote on a bill is expunged but the same bill is voted on again later for the record and passes.
A bill cannot become a law without an official record of the vote.
"Though it's rare, occasionally the procedural step of expunging a vote is necessary," said Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). She said the procedure can be used to allow "further discussion and negotiation that may ultimately lead to consensus on a contentious issue."
In addition to the oil drilling bill, the final vote tally is missing from Assembly records on a controversial bill last year that would have reduced the punishment for crack cocaine crimes and increased the punishment for powder cocaine offenses.
According to the bill, its intent was "to eliminate the racially disparate impact of existing law."
Assembly records also were purged of the final vote on a bill that would have created an independent commission to revise some criminal penalties, a proposal fought by law enforcement groups that warned that it would lead to weaker punishments. Votes on bills involving the healthcare industry and the state lottery are also gone from the record.
"It's a legislative coverup," said Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles nonprofit group that advocates for open government. "We are entitled to know how our legislators vote."
The latest case involved a proposal to allow additional drilling from an existing oil platform at Tranquillon Ridge off the Santa Barbara coast.
The bill was defeated in the Assembly, with 48 members, almost all the Democrats, voting against it. A printout of the vote was available to those in the chamber until a motion to expunge the vote was advanced by Democratic floor leader Alberto Torrico of Newark. He declined to comment.
Other Democrats said the action was requested by Assembly Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), who represents a coastal district where offshore oil drilling is unpopular with many voters. Blakeslee has been raising money to run for the state Senate.
Blakeslee's office denied that he was behind it.
"The only action requested by Assembly Republicans was to have the measure taken up for a vote," spokeswoman Jennifer Gibbons said.
The purging of the vote means that it would be tough for the public and political campaign researchers to find -- but not impossible.
"This isn't 1955 where you can contain this kind of information and a collegial press will play along," DeVore said.
He said video of the vote is available on the website for CalChannel, which is provided by private cable companies. The action also was detailed on websites for the political newspaper Capitol Weekly and the Sierra Club. Murphy cited the availability of those broadcasts in defending the purging process.
The state Senate does not allow vote records to be expunged from public files, said Gregory P. Schmidt, secretary of the California Senate.
"The [Senate] policy reflects a belief that a vote creates a record that should be available for public view, and that members should stand by what they vote for," Schmidt said.