Lawmakers outline proposals for virtual voting

Lawmakers outline proposals for virtual voting
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday called on House leaders to consider allowing votes on legislation by phone or video conferencing so they can conduct congressional business while still abiding by health guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Problem Solvers Caucus, a nearly 50-member group of Democrats and Republicans, outlined multiple ideas for how the House could allow lawmakers to cast roll-call votes remotely on legislation during emergencies, like the coronavirus crisis, that make travel and congregating in large groups difficult.

"Unlike the flu pandemic of 1918, modern technology offers us a host of options to govern from afar, safely and securely, during these exigent circumstances," the caucus members, led by Reps. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerGun control group rolls out House endorsements A quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power Bipartisan Senate group offers new help to state, local governments MORE (D-N.J.) and Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedA quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power Bipartisan Senate group offers new help to state, local governments GOP Rep. Pete King to buck party, vote for Democrats' coronavirus relief bill MORE (R-N.Y.), wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death 5 things to know about US-China tensions over Hong Kong Pelosi calls Trump's decision to withdraw US from WHO 'an act of extraordinary senselessness' MORE (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers House punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate Rep. Banks launches bid for RSC chairman MORE (R-Calif.).

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The caucus members pointed to other legislatures around the world that have implemented systems allowing lawmakers to vote remotely on measures to address the pandemic.

"Similarly, we believe Congress must be responsive to the changing operational requirements created by the pandemic crisis," they wrote.

"As many of our states remain in lockdown and face public health threats, we acknowledge the difficulty in achieving a physical quorum in our chamber. Traditional travel to Washington, and congressional committee and floor work could create unnecessary risks," they stated.

The Problem Solvers members laid out three ideas for how lawmakers could cast roll-call votes while back in their home districts.

One would be for lawmakers to call the House clerk by telephone and log their votes by voice. Members would then receive an email confirmation to their House-provided email account. Ideas for verifying members' identities include confirming the numbers on their individual voting cards — which they use to vote electronically on the House floor — or having secure lines installed in their homes.

The letter also suggested having lawmakers use video conferencing to log their votes or an audio line for those who don't have internet access at home.

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A third proposed option would be installing voting machines similar to those on the House floor in lawmakers' district offices or homes. But the Problem Solvers members acknowledged that it would "require substantial set up and planning, which would delay the utility of this potential solution during the COVID-19 crisis."

They also suggested using video conferencing for lawmakers to participate in debate on legislation, which could be conducted from district offices, members' homes or secure video lines in nearby military or law enforcement offices.

As for committee activity, the lawmakers proposed using a video conferencing system with "redundant systems in place" to prepare for potential disruption by hackers. They suggested that committee votes could be conducted like their proposed options for floor votes, such as secure video or phone.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), at the request of Pelosi, issued a report last month outlining lawmakers' options for voting during the pandemic. The report concluded that quickly establishing a remote voting system would not be feasible in the midst of a pandemic and that passing legislation by an unprecedented and untested system could lead to legal challenges.

The report issued by McGovern's office also floated potential rules changes, such as proxy voting that would allow an absent member to authorize another member physically present in the House chamber to cast a vote on their behalf.

But McCarthy has rejected the idea of proxy voting — which has precedent in committees — in arguing that it "puts too much power in one hand."

The House can pass bills by voice vote or unanimous consent without requiring all members to be physically present, but a single dissenting member can unilaterally block it.

House leaders faced a conundrum late last month when Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieHouse holds first-ever proxy votes during pandemic House GOP lawmaker breaks with party to back proxy voting House adopts historic rules changes to allow remote voting MORE (R-Ky.) objected to passing a $2 trillion relief package by voice vote even though it otherwise had broadly bipartisan support.

Pelosi and McCarthy subsequently scrambled to ensure they had enough members on hand in the chamber to establish a quorum — in this case, a minimum of 216 members — to override Massie's objections. The bill still passed by voice vote, but House officials had to take special precautions like ensuring that lawmakers sat far apart from each other and disinfecting microphones after every use during floor debate.

Despite Pelosi and McCarthy's teamwork in ensuring they could get around Massie's demands, the two parties have otherwise not come to an agreement on alternatives to in-person voting during the pandemic.

But the proposals outlined by the Problem Solvers Caucus indicate that there are ideas that have at least some bipartisan support.

Pelosi last week dismissed the idea of remote voting, telling reporters "let’s not waste time on something that is not going to happen.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFor city parks: Pass the Great American Outdoors Act now US ill-prepared for coronavirus-fueled mental health crisis Schumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe MORE (R-Ky.) has also dismissed the idea of remote voting, despite calls for the move from some senators in both parties.

Both the House and Senate are scheduled to remain on recess until at least April 20.

While Congress has not been able to establish a way for lawmakers to cast virtual votes, legislatures in some U.S. states and other countries have created alternatives during the pandemic so they can vote using email, conference calls and video conferencing.

Spain, which currently has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, already had a system in place for several years that allows members of its Parliament to vote remotely while they are on parental leave or dealing with a serious illness. Most Spanish lawmakers have taken to using that system during the pandemic to cast votes remotely while the country is on a national lockdown.

The European Union Parliament also allowed its members to cast votes by email on coronavirus relief measures last month.

And in the United Kingdom, House of Commons leaders said last week that they are reviewing how Parliament can operate virtually.

In the U.S., some state legislatures have changed their rules in recent weeks to allow remote voting. New Jersey legislators passed coronavirus relief measures by conference call last month, while Pennsylvania state lawmakers did the same with video conferencing software.