Schumer: Senate should 'explore' remote voting if coronavirus sparks lengthy break

Schumer: Senate should 'explore' remote voting if coronavirus sparks lengthy break
© Bonnie Cash

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday opened the door to looking into remote voting if the coronavirus epidemic prevents lawmakers from returning to Washington for a long period of time.

"If we can't come back for a long time, I think we should explore ... a way to vote remotely only in an emergency situation," he told reporters during a press conference. 

Schumer noted that Democrats were just starting to look at the "legal, constitutional, [and] technical" ramifications, as well as how it would change the Senate as an institution. 

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"The Senate is a body where we're supposed to debate and hear one another and be with one another. So I am loathe to get rid of that but, in an emergency, you may have to temporarily," he added. 

The Senate left Washington, D.C., early Thursday morning and is not expected to return until April 20. The House left earlier this month; when leadership will bring lawmakers back is unclear. 

The idea of remote voting has jumped into the national spotlight as the coronavirus has fundamentally changed American life by encouraging "social distancing" in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. 

A broad swath of the Senate is also older than 60, meaning that they fall into an age group that is particularly susceptible to the virus and should avoid the sort of travel and gathering that is routine for the Senate, where lawmakers travel to and from Washington and frequently stand together on the floor.   

A  group of roughly 70 House Democrats wrote to Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass) urging him to alter the House guidelines to allow for remote voting. 

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But McGovern, in a report released late Monday, warned that Congress hasn't adopted secure enough technology to ensure it would work effectively.

"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 idea has bipartisan support in the Senate after Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a rules change that would allow Schumer and 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.) to secure temporary remove voting authority in the event of a national crisis. 

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But McConnell has rejected the idea for now. Instead, the GOP leader has lengthened vote times and encouraged social distancing. Staff has also started propping open doors to the chamber during the vote so members don't have to touch them on their way in or out. 

“We’ll not be doing that. There are a number of different ways to avoid getting too many people together,” McConnell told reporters earlier this month