For the first time in history, House lawmakers cast proxy votes on behalf of colleagues who were not present for the proceedings, a landmark move implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic that has further divided the chamber along partisan lines.
“As the member designated by Ms. Lofgren of California, pursuant to House Resolution 965, I inform the House that Ms. Lofgren will vote yea,” said Rep. Brendan F. Boyle. The third-term Pennsylvania Democrat cast the first-ever proxy vote on the House floor on behalf of his 13-term colleague, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, on a bill targeting human rights violations against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China.
To cast a vote by proxy, absent lawmakers sent letters electronically to the House clerk, identifying their proxy designee along with exact instructions on how to vote on each question on the floor.
The 72 Democrats who voted by proxy represent 19 different states. The California delegation had the most members, 26, vote by proxy, followed by Florida with eight members, Texas with six, New York with five and Illinois with four. No other state had more than three members vote by proxy.
Local lawmakers were a popular choice for proxies. Virginia’s Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Maryland’s Jamie Raskin each cast the most votes for colleagues, with Beyer efficiently listing his proxies aloud for the clerk. Under the temporary rules change that allows for the proxy voting, any one member can only serve as a proxy for up to 10 members.
Of members present for the vote, 42 Democrats served as a proxy for at least one of their absent colleagues. Beyer was the most popular choice, having been designated as a proxy by seven of his colleagues, followed by Raskin with six, Reps. Dan Kildee of Michigan and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida with four each and Reps. Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire and Grace Meng of New York with three each. Others voted on behalf of one or two colleagues.
While most members voting by proxy were from states that are not within easy driving distance of the Capitol, it does not appear travel concerns were the sole reason members stayed home, considering 29 of those who voted by proxy chose a colleague from their state delegation to serve as their proxy.
The members who live closest to Washington but chose to vote by proxy include Virginia Rep. A. Donald McEachin and New Jersey Reps. Donald M. Payne Jr. and Bonnie Watson Coleman, all of whom have age or health concerns.
The submission of a proxy vote is a lengthy process. It begins with the letter to the clerk, followed by the announcement from the designee at the microphone and another announcement by the clerk of the absent lawmaker’s position during the vote. Only once the clerk voices the position does it appear illuminated on the wall alongside the electronic votes of their present colleagues. At the close of the vote, the clerk once again reads aloud the proxy votes.
Democrats casting votes for their colleagues queued in the aisle, wearing masks and keeping at least 6 feet between them as they awaited their turn at the microphone. Floor staffers urged them to not return up the aisle past their colleagues when they were done, but instead ushered them to the mostly empty front of the chamber.
Until Wednesday, only members present in the House chamber could cast votes on legislation and procedural business. It is standard practice for members to file “Personal Explanations” explaining missed votes, or votes they entered incorrectly, which appear in the Congressional Record. The explanations don’t actually change a vote or record one after the fact, and the final tally remains unchanged. The statements express the intent of the lawmakers and allow them to say, “Here’s how I would have voted.”
That is the method that Republican leaders urged their members to use if they could not physically make it to the Capitol to vote. GOP Whip Steve Scalise urged his conference to come to Washington for this week’s votes and to not utilize the proxy voting system.
“If a Member is unable to travel to D.C., they are encouraged to submit their vote positions for the Congressional record rather than utilizing the Democrats’ proxy voting scheme,” reads a whip notice sent to Republicans.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sued Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday to block the proxy voting system, calling it unconstitutional. The suit also names two nonpartisan officials tasked with implementing the proxy voting system, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving and House Clerk Cheryl L. Johnson, as defendants.
The California Republican’s lawsuit includes 20 other GOP members as plaintiffs, joined by a handful of constituents who contend that voting by proxy runs counter to the purpose of the House, in which elected representatives speak on behalf of their own constituents.
“It’s a violation of the Constitution and a dereliction of the duty of elected officials. It will silence the voice of the people, the same constituents that you took the oath to represent,” McCarthy said ahead of votes Wednesday.
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer defended the proxy voting practice in an animated floor speech, invoking both the Constitutional Convention and his own constituents, saying that proxy votes are constitutionally valid and necessary during the current health emergency.
“If people can get here, they’ll get here,” said Hoyer. “If not, because flights have been canceled, because they’re living in an area where there has been a terrible surge in COVID-19, we will adjust accordingly.”
Hoyer stressed that the proxy voting authority is temporary and not intended to replace in-person voting or deliberations in the long term. The period where proxy voting is allowed is 45 days, although it can be extended for another 45 days by the speaker. He compared proxy voting to a common practice that members on both sides of the aisle employ when the chamber is crowded during a vote.
There are dozens of voting stations around the House chamber, and members can use any of them to vote using a card they carry. Members insert the card into the machine and push the button with the voting position they want to record: “Yea,” “Nay” or “Present.”
“Very frankly, if you’re standing in the aisle and you can’t get by and you ask your friend, ‘Put it in the slot for me, will you?’” said Hoyer, talking about members’ voting cards. “I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand if you ever did that, but that was virtual voting.”
The temporary allowance of proxy voting is the most significant update to voting procedures since the elimination of “teller votes” in 1971 and the debut of the current electronic voting system in 1973. Democrats pushed through the temporary rules change earlier this month without support from Republicans.
Lindsey McPherson and Chris Marquette contributed to this report.