Key House chairman cautions against remote voting, suggests other options amid coronavirus outbreak

Key House chairman cautions against remote voting, suggests other options amid coronavirus outbreak
© Greg Nash

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) cautioned lawmakers in a report Monday night that quickly establishing an electronic system to cast votes remotely is "unrealistic" given a variety of logistical challenges.

But he offered a handful of options that lawmakers can consider so they don't have to travel back to Washington amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The report released by McGovern that outlines lawmakers' options concluded that "by far the best option is to use the existing House rules and current practices," specifically by unanimous consent or voice vote, which don't require all members to be present. 

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Congressional leaders are still negotiating with the Trump administration on a third stimulus package to help boost the economy, which is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. Once it passes the Senate, House leaders will have to decide how to proceed.

With lawmakers in both parties fearful of traveling and spending time in close quarters now that at least three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus, McGovern said the best option is to utilize existing House rules rather than attempt to establish an untested system like internet-based voting.

"Clearly, the quickest and likely best path forward is for Congress to pass that measure by unanimous consent or by voice vote. Short of that, there are a few difficult options that we can consider utilizing," McGovern wrote in a letter to colleagues.

The report pointed to precedent established during the 1918 flu pandemic, in which the House used a unanimous consent agreement to pass legislation.  

Many lawmakers in recent days have called for the House to establish a remote voting system so that they can still cast votes while avoiding the risk of exposing themselves to the coronavirus, either while traveling back and forth from their districts or while congregating in the Capitol.  

Nearly 70 House Democrats signed a letter led by Reps. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSwalwell: Barr has taken Michael Cohen's job as Trump's fixer The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Chris Christie says Trump team wasn't aggressive enough early in COVID-19 crisis; Tensions between White House, Fauci boil over Trump administration moves to formally withdraw US from WHO MORE (D-Calif.) and Katie Porter (D-Calif.) earlier Monday urging McGovern to change House rules to allow for remote voting. 

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But the report released by McGovern concluded that it wouldn't be feasible to quickly create a remote electronic voting system while lawmakers are expected to act expeditiously on legislation to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. 

"While remote voting deserves ... thoughtful study, to create a secure, reliable, and user-friendly system while in the midst of a crisis is not realistic," the report says.

The report warned of potential security threats against an internet-based voting system, as well as possible legal challenges from opponents of legislation passed under such a system. It further cautioned against trying a new system for the first time on major legislation like an economic stimulus package in response to a pandemic.

"Remote voting — in addition to facing logistical and security challenges — is untested constitutionally and there is no precedent for its use in Congress. Using this process to pass legislation could run the risk of legislation being challenged in court, for example by an outside group opposing the legislation. Although there are potentially winning arguments to be made regarding constitutionality, any challenge could delay implementation of critical legislation," the report says.

The report offered a handful of other options aside from the existing rules. 

If members had to travel back to the Capitol to vote, the House could hold votes open for longer than usual so that lawmakers could vote in shifts and avoid large crowds in the chamber. The report suggested "sanitizing voting stations between uses" and "controlling how many people are in the chamber and their proximity to each other." 

That would reflect what the Senate has done in recent days to hold floor votes for longer periods to promote social distancing guidelines recommended by public health authorities.

The report released by McGovern also floated "enhanced unanimous consent," which would require the House adopting a resolution increasing the minimum number of lawmakers needed to object to an attempt to pass a bill by unanimous consent. 

Under current rules, one lawmaker can single-handedly prevent a bill from passing by unanimous consent if he or she is physically present in the chamber.

However, the House would potentially have to conduct a roll call vote to change the existing unanimous consent process. 

Another option would be "proxy voting," in which an absent member could give a member present in the House chamber the authority to cast a vote for them. In such a scenario, the minority and majority leaders could serve as proxies for the members of their respective parties for a verbal roll call vote. Members who still wish to vote in person on their own behalf could still do so.

But such a process would also require making a change to House rules.

The House last week passed changes to the second economic stimulus package — which established paid sick leave for some workers and enhanced unemployment insurance, among other provisions — by unanimous consent.

But conservative Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump order aims to curb US agencies' use of foreign workers after TVA outrage | EPA transition back to the office alarms employees | Hundreds of green groups oppose BLM nominee Interior stresses 'showing up for work' after Grijalva tests positive for coronavirus Trump's junk medicine puts his own supporters at deadly risk MORE (R-Texas) initially objected to its passage, demonstrating the risks of trying to pass major bills by unanimous consent. Gohmert ultimately relented hours later after conversations with House GOP leaders and the president.

Last year, multiple House Republicans prevented a disaster aid bill from passing by unanimous consent while the chamber was in recess. That delayed passage of the bill for more than a week until the House could reconvene for a roll call vote.