House inches toward low-tech remote voting with proxy vote proposal

COVID-19 pandemic has limited travel and made gathering in large groups especially dangerous

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., outlined options for the House to engage in proxy voting due to the pandemic.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., outlined options for the House to engage in proxy voting due to the pandemic. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 16, 2020 at 3:55pm

The House is inching toward “temporary, low-tech remote voting,” according to recommendations that House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern made on a conference call with House Democrats on Thursday.

The Massachusetts Democrat recommended proxy voting, which would allow an absent member to designate a colleague to vote on their behalf, and unlike proposals floated previously, there would be no “general proxy” to allow minority and majority leaders to serve as proxies for members of their respective parties for a verbal roll call vote.

“Members would have to direct each and every vote,” McGovern said in a statement issued after Thursday’s call.

Members able and willing to vote in person on their own behalf could still do so. Members physically present would be eligible to cast votes on behalf of their colleagues. House members who remained in their district would send a letter, electronically, to the clerk to authorize another member to vote on their behalf and provide exact instruction. The authorization could be updated as procedural or other unexpected votes arise during the session.

Rank-and-file members have put pressure on leadership to come up with a way for the House to continue urgent legislative business during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited travel and made gathering in large groups especially dangerous. While digital solutions have been proposed, there are concerns about testing, cybersecurity and access.

[House report tables remote voting]

“This system would enable Members to vote remotely in a secure way, without using the kind of technology that is susceptible to hacking or interference by foreign bad actors,” McGovern said. “And because it doesn’t rely on some new technology being stood up and vigorously tested, it could give Members a say on important legislation much more quickly.”

The House would need to agree to a temporary rule change, and if it doesn’t garner enough support, members would have to return to Washington for votes or to implement the rule change in person.

“We should not wait for this pandemic to end to make changes to the rules that help us to do our jobs in such an unprecedented time. I hope my colleagues, Democratic and Republican, can work together to implement this temporary solution,” said McGovern.

Stripping the general proxy out of the proposal may be a bid to get some Republicans on board with the rules change. As he left the March 27 vote on the most recent coronavirus aid package, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters he wasn’t a fan of proxy voting.

“I don’t think proxy voting is healthy; it puts too much power in one set of hands,” McCarthy said.

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Proxy votes would be counted as normal votes in the vote tally to pass bills or adopt resolutions, and count toward a quorum.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been among the biggest skeptics of previous remote voting proposals. On Thursday, she spoke about it on a conference call with reporters.

“It’s not as easy as you may think. And I’ve not been negative on it. I’ve been negative on the status quo of it because so far we haven’t had a good option,” she said.

“When people ask about remote voting or proxy voting and the rest, that requires a change in the rules of the Congress, so if we are to do that we have to come in to do that in order to change the rules,” she said.

That is why she tasked McGovern and House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., to look into the matter closely. “Show us how we can do what — what are the options that the Constitution, the rules of the House, the technology, the security enables us to do. And that is what they’ve been working on. Until we have an appropriate way to do it, we can’t do it. So it’s not about being negative on it. It’s just, show us the way,” she said.

McGovern’s recommendation for proxy voting was not a surprise. In a March 24 call with House Democrats, he outlined options for voting during the pandemic and made clear that his official recommendation in the short term was proxy voting if a roll call vote is needed and members can’t travel.

He said at that time that Republicans seemed amenable to collaborating on proxy voting, according to the source on the March call.

McGovern also addressed the need for committees to proceed with hearings and markups while members are spread across the country.

“Making changes to the standing rules of the House and putting in place technology to allow for virtual hearings and markups is complicated and can’t be done overnight,” he said. “But in the meantime, committees can hold briefings and roundtables to continue their work as we continue to work with the Committee on House Administration on these issues.”

Regardless of the outcome, the pandemic has pushed the House to consider alternative operations far beyond what Pelosi had previously been comfortable with.

In 2014, Pelosi’s opposition to proxy voting garnered criticism within her own caucus when she refused to allow then-Rep. Tammy Duckworth — a double-amputee war veteran whose pregnancy had made her unable to travel — to vote by proxy in leadership elections, citing rules for the House floor.

At a news conference in 2014, Pelosi doubled down on her opposition to proxy voting, even in Steering Committee votes, saying she’d rather see proxy voting on the floor than in the caucus.

“The rules of the caucus are the same as the rules of the House. No proxy voting. … The fact is that it’s really important to be here, to be in caucus. It’s more important to vote on the floor. If I were to make a fight, I’d vote to have a proxy vote on the floor than in whatever’s going on in the caucus.”

Her 2014 stance may have been a premonition of sorts, as proxy voting gets closer to reality on the House floor.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.