Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Opinion by Editorial Board April 17, 2020 at 4:19 p.m. EDT
HOUSE SPEAKER Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has announced her support for allowing representatives to vote by proxy, a welcome change from Congress’s previous plan not to return to Washington until next month “absent an emergency.” Lawmakers in both chambers ought to get behind the idea as a first step in a broader strategy for legislating remotely. After all, we’re in an emergency already. The novel coronavirus makes the business of in-person governing riskier than ever. Yet relying indefinitely on a voice-vote strategy just won’t work. The country needs a functional legislature to forge the pandemic response as democratically as possible; unanimous consent leaves little room for minority voices to make themselves heard without threatening to tank an entire lifesaving effort. The country also needs a legislature to conduct other essential business — not least the oversight of a president who this week threatened to adjourn Congress so that he may appoint his nominees without approval.
The plan for proxy voting comes from House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and would allow lawmakers who can’t return to Congress to delegate their votes to others who more easily could. It’s a low-lift, low-technology fix that serves well as a temporary measure. But it still prevents the rank and file from being able to debate, amend and negotiate as they did when it was still safe to sit within six feet of someone. For that, Congress must contemplate a higher-lift, higher-tech move toward virtual voting, hearings and markups in which all members can participate.
It won’t be easy. In fact, the voting itself may be the simplest part: Security concerns exist but shouldn’t be insurmountable. A Washington firm called Markup.Law has crafted a two-factor authentication system on spec and demonstrated it for decision-makers; Congress could also take the more traditional route of allowing members to phone in votes via a secure line, perhaps presenting themselves to the clerk on video as they do so. Result tallies are public anyway, so why not display them in a centralized location with a period for corrections? Facilitating floor motions and committee work will take more effort, but former officeholders tried out a mock hearing on Zoom this week to get things rolling.
There are legal roadblocks. Any form of remote voting will require rules changes — and authorizing those changes could require relying on the same voice-vote tactic this whole enterprise is designed to avoid. Even then, constitutional challenges may emerge. Any proposal also ought to ensure that these protocols are reserved only for emergencies. The drafts circulating so far demanding bipartisan approval to authorize 30 days of remote voting take the right approach.
Something is lost when politics has to happen from a distance. There won’t be any running into a friend from across the aisle in the House gym; deals made in the backroom might become deals made on Zoom. Leadership may miss the ability to speak to members individually and in person — to coax them into line and to learn from them, too. But many Americans are losing things right now, and Congress’s figuring out how to do its job amid the crisis would be to the rest of the country’s gain.