Congress’ embrace of technology is slow, hampered by tradition

Vermont and at least 10 foreign legislatures allow remote voting for members, but Congress is reluctant

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Posted April 27, 2021 at 6:01am

Taipei is doing it, Brasilia is doing it, even London is doing it. That is, allowing their nationally elected representatives to use technological tools to digitally cast votes on legislation and other measures.

But in Washington, D.C., home to the world’s oldest democracy, fears about security, persistent partisanship and the weight of tradition have slowed the full deployment of technological tools during the pandemic.  

The House last May approved new procedures allowing hearings to be held on digital platforms and a member to cast his or her vote by picking another lawmaker to do so by proxy. But it stopped short of embracing existing technologies and tools allowing members to vote using their phones or from online platforms. 

The Senate, led by Republicans last year, permitted video hearings but not proxy voting.

Even the limited change in procedure led to partisan accusations, however, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his top lieutenants alleging in a lawsuit that Democrats were silencing Americans’ voices and overturning “centuries of House precedent.” They called it a “disgrace.” 

A report prepared by the staff of the House Administration Committee and released in November said remote voting was technically feasible. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chairperson of the committee, sent the report to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noting that “secure technology” to conduct remote voting existed and recommending that the House embrace the technologies. 

The report said that 11 U.S. states and a dozen other countries had allowed their members to use digital tools to vote remotely on bills. 

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Voting remotely

Although most state legislatures did not actually use the tools during the pandemic, Vermont did. 

The state allowed members of its House to use commercially available software that is used for emergency communications to cast votes remotely, according to the staff report. The state’s Senate, in contrast, used a videoconferencing platform that required lawmakers to be on camera to record votes remotely. 

National parliaments in countries such as America’s closest ally, the United Kingdom, as well as in other democracies, including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Taiwan, allowed the use of digital remote voting for their representatives, the report noted. China’s National Assembly also said its members could vote using remote tools. 

As the House was considering options for operating during the pandemic, some members pushed the chamber and its leadership to allow remote digital voting, said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the House Rules Committee.

But concerns about security and transparency meant the House could embrace only the proxy voting method, which “is probably not the most high-tech approach,” McGovern said in an interview.

McGovern hoped that the House would soon come up with “some sort of technology that members could just vote in real time from wherever they may be.” But the chamber wasn’t ready to do so in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, he said. 

The pandemic did usher in other changes bringing Congress into the 21st century. 

“We moved to a completely paperless process” for submitting amendments to bills as well as distributing documents, McGovern said. “We have talked about doing this for years, but with this pandemic it became a necessity.” 

The changes meant that when the House was considering multiple appropriations bills, interns working for lawmakers didn’t have to wait in lines that typically snaked around corridors spread over two or three floors to file each amendment by paper before the House Rules Committee, McGovern said. 

Overseas experimentation

In contrast to the slow change in Washington, other countries less encumbered by tradition appear to have embraced technologies. 

In Brazil, the National Congress “went totally digital and remote” within three days of COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic, said Debora Albu, program coordinator at the Institute for Technology and Society of Rio, also known as ITS. The institute advocates for the use of technology to expand the democratic process. 

Brazil uses an app called Infoleg that was built in 2016 but was deployed last year to hold virtual plenary sessions of the country’s parliament. The members register their phones with parliament officials, and votes cast using the app are encrypted and directly uploaded to the parliament databases without going through any cloud service. The app also lets members track all phases of the legislative process from proposal to amendments, votes, floor speeches and agenda, allowing leaders to communicate directly with individual members. 

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, a body that represents world parliaments, found that using the Infoleg app and virtual sessions allowed Brazil to approve 20 percent more bills in 2020 than in 2019 and boosted members’ attendance to 98 percent from 89 percent a year earlier. McGovern said he and other lawmakers have discussed Brazil’s system with counterparts in that country.

In Taiwan, Audrey Tang, the country’s first digital minister, said she has been an “openly teleworking minister” since 2016. 

Tang, who began her career as a software developer and coder, also embraces a radical form of transparency in dealing with her public visitors and media interviews. All visits and interviews with her are recorded, and transcripts are posted on the ministry’s website, with exceptions only for meetings with other government officials and foreign diplomats. 

Brazil and Taiwan also are among countries that have embraced tech-based crowdsourcing that allows average citizens to participate in drawing up legislation.

[Tech tools help deepen citizen input in U.S. and abroad] 

Beth Simone Noveck, director of the Governance Lab at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, which advocates for such tech-based democratic processes, said Congress also can tap into crowdsourced expertise even without high-tech means. 

The Federation of American Scientists and the Governance Lab last year joined hands to launch the Congressional Science Policy Initiative that taps into the knowledge of hundreds of scientists, to help draw up questions and backgrounders on technology topics for lawmakers. 

When a congressional hearing is scheduled, members typically get an outline of the hearing and some broad indication of the topics to be covered, leaving the rest of the research up to staff to figure out. 

At that point the federation then pulls together a brief summarizing research and media reports on the topic. Meanwhile, the organization asks its network of scientists to come up with technical and scientific questions relevant to the hearing and shares those with committee staff and lawmakers, in some cases connecting members with individual scientists for more in-depth briefings. 

In addition to about 600 scientists who have volunteered to help lawmakers prepare for such hearings, FAS has found that graduate students at universities around the country interested in policymaking also want to participate in the crowdsourcing of expertise. 

The effort has helped with as many as 40 different congressional hearings on topics ranging from COVID-19 to digital currency and climate change, according to FAS. 

“We have doctors, we have engineers, we have all kinds of professionals” in the country whose expertise Congress can tap into to solve problems, Noveck said. 

“Whatever the problem that we are trying to solve, we can come up with a solution that actually solves it,” whether by using technologies or by borrowing concepts that have emerged from the world of technology, such as the crowdsourcing of expertise and knowledge, she said. 

Editor's note: This is the second part in a two-part series on how foreign and state legislatures are using new technologies to bring more citizen participation into lawmaking.