Understanding St. Louis: Visualizing Aldermanic Voting Records

From the beginning of the 2015 aldermanic session through June 24, 2016, 9,194 votes have been recorded at the city’s 28-member Board of Aldermen. Of those, just 88 recorded votes, or 0.96%, were “no”. More than 86% were recorded as “yes”, and nearly 13% as “absent”.

What the aggregate numbers tell us is unclear. It’s too easy to see the less than one percent “no” vote as epitomizing the rubber stamp courtesy of the city’s legislative body. Before votes are cast, a bill’s passage has long been secured, the result is not in doubt.

One significant point missing from the data presented here is the committee voting record, which is not made available online. A lot of things, presumably both good and bad, die in committee. For example, just this past week, an effort to no longer allow lobbyists as “special guests” on the floor of the Board of Alderman, failed to make it to larger board.

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If voting on bills provides only a limited view of the city’s legislative body, we can infer some things about the process. Working backward, we can understand that virtually all bills are resolved in committee, many bills do not make it to committee, and aldermen do not draft bills unlikely to win committee support. One of the conclusions from the vote count is that consensus is reached well before a bill catches the public eye.

What else can be found in the numbers? Eight aldermen recorded zero “no” votes, of 330 bills. Another eight recorded just one. Only five recorded more than three. This means 23 aldermen cast a “no” vote on bills before the body just 0.29% of the time (“yes” at a rate of 99.71%).

Seven aldermen recorded “absent” votes on more than 20 percent of the 330 bills before them. Nine aldermen recorded “absent” votes less than 5% of the time, and just two had zero absent votes. Still, the vote tallies mostly just shed light on the “how” of aldermanic voting, and not the “why”.

“Present” and “abstain” votes may also be cast by members of the board. As bills require a majority “yes” votes to pass, any other vote can be used in effect as a “no” vote. In addition, an “absent” vote can sometimes reflect that an alderman left the chamber for a specific vote, even if they were present for the session. From the dates tabulated, just five “present” votes were recorded, including: Conway 2, Ortmann 1, French 1, Arnowitz 1.

It would have been easy to write a more clickable headline, but as I’ve noted, any conclusions to be drawn are quite limited. A large majority of bills are neither controversial, nor strictly legislative, such as approving acceptance of federal grants, signing off on a gate lease at Lambert airport, or blighting an individual vacant home for redevelopment (of which there are many).

Still, it’s instructive to view aldermanic votes in this manner as a baseline to understanding an important core function of the city’s elected representatives. Too few understand what votes at the board look like. The aim is for this to serve as a starting point for a much broader discussion.

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*data compiled from individual voting records accessed on the City of St. Louis website