The U.S Congress may find itself transitioning to a system of remote voting soon due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already already penetrated the capital walls with several members of Congress testing positive.
Never in the history of the United States has there been an allowance for virtual voting by federal legislators, but members may have no other choice but to meet through an online system as COVID-19 continues to ravage the country.
“If you take a look at how Congress conducts business, they’re a petri dish in this pandemic because they congregate and can have 435 House of Representatives members at the same time and place,” said Daniel Chao, chief of staff for congresswoman Grace Napolitano, D-La Verne.
The majority of senators and representatives have already left Capitol Hill to work from home, while only few remain to work on a proposed remote voting bill.
Anticipating the concerns that come with the idea of Congress conducting virtual voting, leaders compiled a report to examine voting options during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the report, there are four ways of voting under current law: unanimous consent and voice votes, recorded votes, paired voting and provisional quorum.
A unanimous consent on remote voting would be the best option because it ensures that members of congress do not travel back to Washington to vote, according to the report. Members could submit a statement for the Congressional Record stating how they voted had there been a recorded vote, according to the report.
However, if a single member objects to a unanimous consent agreement or makes a point of order that a quorum is not present, congress would have to meet in person, according to the report. Therefore while this method would be the most efficient, it could be the hardest to achieve.
In the case a rule change is needed in order to vote on remote voting, the majority of staff provided three possible solutions. Similar to the current unanimous consent, an enhanced unanimous consent could be adopted where the number of Members required to object to a unanimous consent request is increased to a specific number for a period of time. This would prevent a single member from hindering necessary legislation supported by the majority of the House.
Proxy voting on the floor could be the second possibility congress may resort to, where an absent member gives a present member their proxy to cast an actual vote for them for a prescribed period of time. This form of voting would also prevent members from traveling back to Washington, but would require a change in the House rules. The states of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania are already implementing this form of voting for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote voting is among the three possible solutions under changes in rules, although it is the one that has the most disadvantages in the report.
“We want to ensure that the members are actually the ones voting and not someone else,” Chao said. “If someone calls in their vote, we don’t know if they are with another person coercing them or are being influenced by an outside party.”
Under remote voting, members could cast their votes remotely from home or a district office for a specific period of time, according to the report. This would facilitate the voting process for members in self-quarantine and prevent any other members from having to travel to Washington and become exposed to the virus.
Cyber attacks, interference by third parties, and challenges authenticating members’ authorities, however, bring various challenges to remote voting, according to the bill.
“We could install biometrics in every members’ home but that will take a lot of time to do and how would that even work during a pandemic,” Chao said. “A system of remote voting needs to be fully hack proof and you can’t just rush things like that.”
Chao said an option could be for members to go to their local sheriff’s office and scan their finger for a biometrics test, but in this pandemic it would still require people to leave their homes.
While Congress deliberates on remote voting, La Verne, San Dimas and Claremont city councils are all live streaming their meetings for the public to participate while in quarantine.
Governor Gavin Newsom enacted rules that have allowed city governments to lessen the requirement of conducting city business in front of the public, which allows cities to have meetings without having the public physically present, but instead through live streaming.
Bevin Handel, the public information officer for the city of Claremont, said the city council will be using Zoom to conduct its next meeting in April.
“In our last meeting we only had three council members in the chambers and they were sitting 6 feet apart from each other,” Handel said. “We are allowing the public to call in for any comments when we live stream our next meeting, which will be about rental assistance and eviction moratorium.”
Muir Davis, council member for La Verne, said that while they are enforcing physical distancing they are also implementing social engagement during this pandemic.
“We humans are social creatures and we don’t want our community to see this quarantine as a negative,” Davis said. “While we are transitioning into virtual mode, we are also promoting social engagement and reminding our community that we are all in this together.”
La Verne city council will not be voting on any resolutions until November.
Alondra Campos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.