Generally speaking, major votes in the House are taken electronically (see House Floor Procedure, IV). A Member has a plastic card – it looks like a credit card – which he or she uses to vote. When a role call vote is called Members have, according to the rules, 15 minutes to come to the House Chamber, find one of several voting stations in the chamber, insert their unique voting card, and press one of three buttons – yea, nay or present. Members can then verify that their vote was cast correctly by looking up at a large screen (that screen is not visible when a vote is not in progress) above the Speaker’s podium where all of the votes are displayed.
Sometimes Members might want to change their vote. During the first 10 minutes of a 15-minute vote they simply reinsert their card and revote. However, to change a vote in the last five minutes, a Member must go to the Well, take a red (for nay), green (for yea) or orange (for present) card, sign it, and hand it to the Tally Clerk. The Tally Clerk will then record the changed vote. The Congressional Record will reflect that a Member changed their vote.
The red voting cards became the center of attention during a vote on whether or not to table a motion to consider Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (Dem-Ohio) resolution to impeach Vice President Cheney. At first Republicans, who strongly opposed the impeachment resolution voted “yea” to table it (thus effectively killing the measure). However, during the vote, Republicans decided that they would welcome the debate – knowing that it would never succeed – in order to highlight what they described as the "radical liberal beliefs" of some House Democrats. So, virtually all of the Republican Conference went to the Tally Clerk to sign the red cards required to change their votes from “yea” to “nay.”
Unfortunately, someone at the table knocked the pile of red cards over, spilling them in between the solid wood desks. The vote was halted as staff scrambled to find rulers and other skinny items to reach between the desks and try to recover all of the cards. Eventually all of the cards were recovered at the vote was finalized. The Kucinich impeachment resolution was eventually referred to the Judiciary Committee and Dick Cheney is still the Vice-President.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.