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Dems go digital with whip operation

Dems go digital with whip operation
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The newest tool deployed by House Democrats’ whip operation: the text message.

With lawmakers and their staffers frequently communicating on their iPhones, iPads and Android devices through text message, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has turned to SMS to get a quicker, more accurate vote count on critical bills.

It’s the latest development in the evolution of Democrats’ electronic whipping system, launched four years ago as a way for the caucus to tap into modern technology to carry out a century-old tradition.

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For decades, whipping votes had been a tedious process. Lieutenants on the vote-counting team would track down their assigned members —usually on the floor — survey them on how they planned to vote, scribble it down on a paper whip card, then return the card to the whip’s office, where votes would be manually entered into the system.  

Democrats’ new operation works like this: Before important votes, members of the whip team receive a text message or email on their smartphones that contains a customized link. That link opens an electronic whip card in a Web browser with the names of three to five members. After conferring with their assigned lawmakers, the whips record the responses — yes, lean yes, no, lean no and undecided — have the option of adding a note, and press send.

The responses are instantly uploaded to the electronic database in Hoyer’s office, saving valuable time and energy for whips and their staffers.

“Staff doesn’t have to track the whip team down to give them the whip card. And the whip team doesn’t have to track staff down to give them the whip card back,” said one member of the team, Rep. Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenDemocrats debate fast-track for infrastructure package LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to name Speaker COVID-19 is wild card as Pelosi faces tricky Speaker vote Sunday MORE (D-Wash.). “It’s really much more efficient.”

For Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), one of several chief deputy whips, the new system is also more practical: “It’s more convenient for me because I use my cellphone a lot more than I often carry a pen.”

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The email system has been around since 2011 and undergone numerous updates to make it more user-friendly on small smartphone screens. But among the hundreds of emails lawmakers receive each day, those whip emails were sometimes being ignored.

Lawmakers responded a lot more quickly to text messages, so Hoyer staffers decided last year to begin developing a texting version of the program. It was quietly rolled out earlier this year and has been deployed during important votes, including when Democrats supplied 180 votes in March to end the annual Medicare "doc fix" and last month's push to force a vote to revive the Export-Import Bank.  

Democrats’ electronic whipping system is “a critical tool in our efforts to quickly assess where Members stand on bills, educate them on the legislation, and keep Democrats unified on key priorities,” Hoyer said in a statement. “It’s yet another way my operation is utilizing innovative digital tools to make Congress more effective and responsive.”

Even in Congress, a slow-changing institution known for its arcane rules and traditions, the race to innovate is fiercely competitive. GOP conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersDemocrats press Facebook on plans for Instagram for kids GOP lawmakers press social media giants for data on impacts on children's mental health Lawmakers vent frustration in first hearing with tech CEOs since Capitol riot MORE (R-Wash.) frequently hosts roundtable discussions on Capitol Hill with tech leaders and innovators, and she has criticized Congress as a lumbering, 19th century institution trying to tackle 21st century problems.

“The same creative thinking that launched Uber and Lyft should be used to spur tax reform,” she said in a speech this summer on how technology could make government more responsive and effective.

For Democrats, the whip operation is just one area where they’re trying to innovate. Hoyer’s office earlier this year also launched a free cellphone app dubbed “Whip Watch” that provides lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and the public live updates on what’s happening on the floor. Job listings for Democratic offices are also posted on the app.

Last month, Hoyer teamed up with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to host the second “Congressional Hackathon,” which brought together lawmakers, open-government advocates, and Web and mobile developers to discuss ways to inject technology into the legislative process. The discussion covered everything from constituent services and committee meeting to social media, and the two leaders authored a list of recommendations.

In response, a follow-up meeting has been planned for next month to decide the easiest way to share vote tallies and other raw legislative data from the Library of Congress’s Thomas site and Congress.gov with government transparency groups such as the Sunlight Foundation and GovTrack.us.

For now, however, House Republicans don’t appear to be in any rush to abandon paper whip cards. They say the traditional way of counting votes still has some advantages.

“It’s hard to hack into paper,” quipped one senior GOP lawmaker.