House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic

Aaron Schwartz

Nearly 70 House Democrats on Monday formally requested that the chamber change its rules to allow lawmakers to vote remotely during national emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.

House members, most of whom are currently in their districts across the nation, are increasingly fearful for their safety if they have to travel back to Washington, D.C., and congregate in large groups to vote on the next economic stimulus package.

Lawmakers’ fears are increasing by the day as three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus, while more than a dozen others are self-quarantining after being exposed to their infected colleagues.

In a letter led by Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Katie Porter (D-Calif.), a total of 67 Democratic lawmakers asked House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) to temporarily change the lower chamber’s rules to enable remote voting.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week tasked McGovern with issuing a report on House rules regarding voting. McGovern has invited fellow lawmakers to submit comments.

Democrats — including other House committee leaders such as Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (Ky.) — who signed on to the letter argued that a remote voting system would ensure that lawmakers don’t potentially expose each other to the coronavirus and that those in quarantine could still cast votes.

“Unfortunately, during such circumstances, requiring members to vote in person may pose public health risks or even be physically impossible for persons under quarantine. We need to provide a mechanism through which Congress can act during times of crisis without having to assemble in one place,” the lawmakers wrote.

Some lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have expressed skepticism about remote voting and how it would work in practice. McCarthy last week told fellow House Republicans on a conference call that issues like parliamentary motions would not necessarily be worked out so easily if done remotely.

There’s also concern that establishing an internet-based remote voting system could face security threats and potential legal challenges to bills passed under such a process. It would likely also take time to build a remote voting system when lawmakers are under pressure to move quickly to pass legislation in response to the pandemic.

But Swalwell, in the letter, pointed to discussions he’s had with legal experts arguing that a remote voting system would pass muster.

The letter cited Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, pointing to the Constitution stating that “each House may determine the rules of its proceedings” and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe stating that the Constitution “needn’t and shouldn’t be construed to preclude virtual presence any more than it had to be constituted to treat air travel or indeed email as something other than interstate commerce or electronic surveillance as less than a fourth amendment search and seizure.”

Congressional leaders are still negotiating a third economic relief package despite marathon discussions over the weekend. The legislation is expected to pass the Senate before coming to the House.

Without a remote voting system in place, House leaders have limited options without forcing all members to travel back to Washington.

The House can pass legislation by unanimous consent, which requires only one lawmaker to preside over proceedings and a handful of staff on hand. But that process requires the approval of every single House member, meaning that one lawmaker can hold up passage of a bill if they are in the chamber to object.

That happened last week when the House passed changes to the second economic stimulus bill by unanimous consent. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) initially objected to its passage before conversations with GOP leaders and President Trump.

The Senate, which is still in session, has been lengthening the time allotted for roll call votes to help reduce the number of people in the chamber at a time. But that strategy has had mixed results, as some senators continue to congregate in the chamber during votes.

So far, three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus: Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Paul, who is currently asymptomatic, had been proceeding with his usual activities in the Capitol complex until receiving his results Sunday morning.

Tags Carolyn Maloney Coronavirus Donald Trump Eric Swalwell Jerrold Nadler Jerry Nadler John Yarmuth Kevin McCarthy Louie Gohmert Mario Diaz-Balart Nancy Pelosi Rand Paul
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