Pandemic ignites interest in remote voting; McConnell, Pelosi say no

Both McConnell and Pelosi have shot down the idea, which has bipartisan support

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Posted March 18, 2020 at 5:30am

UPDATED 10:35 a.m. | Senators on both sides of the aisle said this week that the chamber is exploring the possibility of voting remotely on a third legislative package responding to the coronavirus pandemic, a move that would upend tradition and require tweaks to the Senate rules. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shot down the idea of remote voting Tuesday, just like Speaker Nancy Pelosi did in the House last week.

Still, McConnell is altering the Senate’s patterns, an acknowledgment of the concerns.

On Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican announced that any votes will be conducted as 30 minutes votes rather than the usual 15 minutes to stagger senators presence in the chamber.

He encouraged senators to leave promptly after voting and to not congregate in the well for the safety of clerks and staff in the front of the chamber.

“I think we’ll be able to get through the voting that will occur in all likelihood later today without violating any of the safety precautions that have been recommended to us by the capitol physician and others,” said McConnell.

The concept of making special accommodations to allow legislative action without gathering lawmakers together has been floating around Capitol Hill, but until this week lawmakers and congressional leaders have brushed aside questions from CQ Roll Call about what would happen if emergency legislation is needed and it is not safe for lawmakers to congregate.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn told reporters that there are discussions underway about potentially voting remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he stressed that the move would require a rules change and may not be simple. An array of Senate rules and procedures require physical presence for certain floor and committee actions.

“The Senate is a pretty tradition-bound place. But these are extraordinary circumstances,” he told reporters Tuesday.

[Some members shutter offices following coronavirus diagnosis on the Hill]

Emergency plans put together in the wake of the 9/11 and anthrax attacks to keep Congress operating are focused on bringing lawmakers together in an alternate or more secure location to reconstitute. But the spread of a pandemic could require an inverse response: keeping lawmakers away from one another to keep the pathogen from spreading among them, separating the ill from the healthy, all while attempting to conduct the business of the country.

Almost half the Senate is among the population that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned is at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19, and the CDC has also instructed people older than 60 not to fly, travel or meet in large groups. But senators are doing all of those things, while millions of even young and healthy Americans are being told to stay home.

The talk of remote voting is taking place amid negotiations on multiple economic stimulus packages, including a House-passed measure and another that is developing that could reach a price tag of more than $1 trillion and include aid as varied as $1,000 checks to Americans and multibillion-dollar relief to airlines and other industries hit hard by the pandemic.

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Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin on Tuesday called on committees to meet via teleconference and for the Senate to make rules changes necessary to allow floor votes without being physically present.

“There may be a definition of ‘present’ that reflects new technology where we can be sure that it is an accurate vote by a member of the Congress and is being done in remote fashion,” he told reporters.

“It's time for the Senate to wake up to the 21st century and make sure we’re using technology that allows us to communicate with each other without any danger or risk to public health,” Durbin said in a Tuesday floor speech.

He said that he’s conferred with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee, and that remote voting procedures and policies are under consideration. He acknowledged that the issue is fraught, calling voting while not physically present a “thorny and difficult question.”

“Let’s get into this. Let’s find a way to do this which protects the integrity of our voting procedure but acknowledges the reality that our physical presence on the floor may not be required,” Durbin said.

Durbin told reporters that his calls for remote voting are focused on emergency situations like the current pandemic, but he said they could also be activated in case of a terror attack or another catastrophic disruption to travel and safety.

He suggested that the issue be discussed this week and that a task force be assembled to figure out options as soon as possible, saying he would like the Senate’s consideration of a third package of legislation to address the economic impact of the coronavirus to not require lawmakers flying across the country and putting themselves and others at risk.

But McConnell quashed Durbin’s vision and perhaps any incentive for Republicans to be involved in talks on voting changes.

“We’ll not be doing that,” the Kentucky Republican said about plans in the works for senators to vote from home at some point in the near future. He also stressed that senators will not leave town until they’ve cleared the third coronavirus relief package.

On the House side, leadership similarly rebuffed calls from rank-and-file members to explore remote voting as the scope of the public health crisis grew.

When California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell plugged his bipartisan bill that would enable members of Congress to virtually participate in committee hearings and to vote remotely on suspension bills from their home districts at a closed Democratic Caucus meeting last week, there was a clear answer from the top. Pelosi responded with a simple and definitive “no.”

“To the extent that Pelosi shut it down, it’s shut down,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said of the remote-voting proposal after last week’s meeting.

The current district work period has been extended indefinitely, meaning it’s not clear when the full House will reconvene again.

California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter raised concerns last week on CNN that as the coronavirus crisis worsens, she may not be able to get back to Washington to vote on a third package of economic measures to lessen the blow to affected industries. Health officials are urging Americans to limit their travel, and airlines are canceling flights because passengers are heeding the calls to stay home.

She called on the House to adopt a remote voting procedure “to ensure that if we’re not able to travel, if this public health crisis worsens, that we’re still able to have a quorum and we’re still able to take votes,” she told CNN.

House Administration ranking Republican Rodney Davis said this week that, on one hand, voting from home in Illinois would allow him more time with his family and constituents, but he is worried that members not being together would erode relationship building and could increase partisan polarization.

“I’m afraid that if we decided to create remote voting opportunities right now, when we didn’t for SARS, we didn't with H1N1, or not doing it for other issues, like even 9/11, that this will become the new norm,” Davis told the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Under the Dome podcast.

A proposal from government transparency and civic engagement advocates Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress and Marci Harris of PopVox would allow Congress to implement time-limited emergency measures to allow remote voting.

In an op-ed last week in The Fulcrum, they urged Congress to put in place mechanisms for legislative action to be done virtually in the face of the pandemic. They also say that both chambers should permit leadership to temporarily convene emergency sessions remotely, as they can within the Capitol.

They acknowledge that legislating is driven by relationships and that in-person voting is a priority. But they suggested the creation of an emergency measure that would be time-limited, to prevent the same concerns raised by Davis: that remote legislating would become overused and change the character of Congress.

The expiration of the emergency authority for remote voting would be key, Schuman told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday, because it would build in an off switch and not allow Congress to continuously vote from outside of the Capitol.

But Harris and Schuman pointed out a key barrier to a long-term emergency continuity plan for remote voting.

“Congress has underinvested in its own technology for decades, and online deliberations and voting requires both money and technological improvisation to adapt congressional and private sector tools,” they wrote.

Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.