Bentley says yes, then votes no on Brady bill Voting system blamed for mix-up

November 12, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau Staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Announcing her gubernatorial candidacy Wednesday, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley told a Baltimore news conference that she would vote for legislation to establish a nationwide waiting period for handgun purchases.

But later in the day she voted against the bill, according to the official record.

Mrs. Bentley, whose campaign will include an emphasis on combating crime, says that she actually voted for the Brady bill, which requires a five-day waiting period to purchase a handgun. She insists that the electronic system that tallies the votes of House members malfunctioned in reporting her vote -- something that observers of House affairs say they have never heard of.

"I've never had anything like that happen before," the 69-year-old Baltimore County Republican said yesterday. Asked if she might have erroneously pressed the wrong button while voting, she replied, "I don't think there is any possibility I did that."

Mrs. Bentley said she learned of her recorded vote upon returning to her Capitol Hill office following the roll call. She then hurried back to the House floor and placed in the official record a statement saying that the computer system had erred, she said.

Meanwhile, an aide called The Sun Wednesday night to say that Mrs. Bentley's vote against the bill had been recorded erroneously and had been corrected.

Her statement will be printed in the Congressional Record immediately after the roll call on the bill, she said. Copies of the Congressional Record for Wednesday were not available yesterday because the Capitol was closed for Veterans Day.

House Clerk Donnald K. Anderson, who has been on the staff for 34 years, said yesterday, "I'm not aware of the machine ever having failed to correctly record a vote."

"It's tweaked and tuned, and checked and monitored every single day," said Mr. Anderson, whose duties include keeping the 20-year-old electronic system running properly.

But, he said, "Members do on occasion make mistakes in casting fTC their votes, as we do in all of life. They can correct it in the record, but we can't reopen the vote or we would never be able to close it."

Campaign issue?

For whatever reason, Mrs. Bentley's Brady bill vote could raise questions during the forthcoming campaign, particularly since she has a history of changing positions.

In 1988, she voted for a substitute amendment -- backed by the National Rifle Association -- that effectively killed the Brady legislation, after promising police organizations that she'd support Brady.

Subsequently, she defended the vote and then, after criticism, said she had made a mistake.

A year later, she voted -- in different roll calls -- on both sides of an abortion controversy, claiming that one vote involved policy, the other financing.

Mr. Anderson said he had not received any complaint from Mrs. Bentley about the Brady bill vote.

"This is the first I've heard of it," he said. Officials could check the tape and possibly determine if there was an error if she gave them the necessary information -- for example, which of the numerous voting stations that she used.

To vote, House members go to one of the stations scattered throughout the chamber and insert a special card -- similar to a bank machine or charge card. They then push a button to record a vote -- one button for yes, a separate one for no. A list of all House members is displayed on a wall, along with each member's vote, while roll calls are in progress, so that anyone in the chamber can track votes. Members can change their votes while a roll call is taking place, but not after it ends.

The only recourse for a member is to insert in the Congressional Record a statement saying a vote was in error. The tally remains unchanged, but the statement appears with the tally.

At her morning news conference, Mrs. Bentley said she had voted three times for the Brady bill. On Wednesday, the measure passed the House by a vote of 238 to 189.

Busy day

For Mrs. Bentley, Wednesday was a busy day. She held news conferences in Baltimore and Rockville to announce her gubernatorial campaign, then rushed to Washington for a full day at the House. Later, she delivered a speech opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mrs. Bentley said yesterday that she doesn't think the Wednesday vote will become an issue in the campaign. "I think we caught it."

Some of her Republican colleagues carefully check their votes, making sure they have been recorded properly, while they still have time to change, she said.

"I used to laugh at members who checked their votes," she added. "I thought it was ridiculous." She acknowledged that she had not done that on Wednesday.

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