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How the Senate should implement remote voting in emergencies

It is time for Congress to change its rules to let members of the House and Senate vote from their states or districts when there is a true national emergency that makes it impossible or unwise to come together in the Capitol. A few weeks ago, I introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) to do just that.

The idea of remote voting has been kicking around for years, but it has gotten more attention recently with the coronavirus. In a way, having the capability to vote remotely is similar to what so many others are doing, as millions of jobs have shifted to remote work to slow the spread of the virus.

Congress has a critical job to do in passing legislation to provide economic and health care relief to the millions of Americans affected by the coronavirus, and to help the economy recover as there is success in stopping the spread of the virus. We cannot let the pandemic stop us from doing our essential work.

There are legitimate concerns about permitting remote voting, and those need to be addressed. The main challenge to remote voting is security. Any remote voting system would likely be a target for hackers. However, there are ways to make such a system secure. By adopting identity authentication principles that are already common in the private sector today, we can ensure that senators are who they say they are.

My resolution would permit the technology experts in the U.S. Senate to devise an appropriate, secure system. One idea is to use multi-factor authentication. In other words, senators would need more than a username and password to access the system. I suggest that they input an additional code that is generated every time they try to access the system, similar to the RSA SecurIDs that many banks provide to customers. We can also add a biometric lock — think of how you can unlock your smartphone with your fingerprint — as well as a geolocation feature and in-person witnesses to prove the senators’ votes are actually cast by the senators.

Such a system may not be the most user-friendly, but remote voting is less about convenience than it is about ensuring the ironclad integrity needed to protect our democracy.

Remote voting might not need to be so high-tech either. There have been calls to use the videoconferencing platforms as a method of remote voting, and members of the European Parliament have already begun to cast remote votes using photographs and emails.

Furthermore, I want to be clear that this measure is not just about being able to cast a vote remotely, but also about putting in place a system to allow for the total continuity of legislative government — to enable senators to continue to carry out all of their constitutional duties of legislating, even when they cannot be in the same room together. The prerogative of each senator to not just vote but also debate and amend legislation must not be diminished.

Some have expressed concern that this would be a permanent change in Senate practice, but the proposal would only allow the Republican and Democratic leader to make the joint decision to permit remote voting in a true emergency, and then to require the Senate to vote affirmatively every 30 days to continue it, or it would expire.

It is critical we have in place the necessary measures to ensure the continuity of government, no matter the crisis. Today it is the coronavirus, but tomorrow it may be an act of terrorism.

The Senate is an institution built on tradition. However, extraordinary circumstances have changed those traditions before. Recall that senators used to be elected by state legislatures. The realities of the 21st century require us to alter the tradition of in-person voting when there is a true emergency, and thus ensure that the legislative branch and the people we represent are heard, especially during a crisis. Isolationist senators filibustered legislation to protect American ships crossing the Atlantic. In the creation of cloture, history gives us inspiration for how to navigate the tension between tradition and crisis. The extraordinary times of today require us to plan for every contingency, and as Congress continues its work to provide economic and health care relief to the millions of Americans affected by the coronavirus, we can’t let the pandemic stop us from doing our jobs.

Portman is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

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