Published December 13, 2020
THOSE SKEPTICAL that Congress can vote remotely in a safe, secure and effective manner may be surprised to hear that it’s already happening. The Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives conducted its leadership elections in recent weeks entirely virtually — leaving the full chamber as well as legislatures across the country with no excuse not to figure out how they, too, can operate from afar.
The House approved voting by proxy last spring, but Republican opposition to anything more radical held the majority back from taking the final step. For Democratic internal affairs, that’s less of a problem. Using an app called Markup, caucus members logged in to their government-provided iPhones and expressed their preferences. The data traveled, encrypted, to staff in Washington for tallying. This process cleared a far higher technological hurdle than most legislative remote voting would have to because the leadership elections were done by secret ballot, which makes tamper-proofing measures harder to implement.
This proof of concept completes the case for taking some form of true remote voting to the House writ large. The alternative is already proving unacceptable. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces a hurdle in securing approval for the renewal of her mandate on the floor: If fewer Democrats attend the vote because of coronavirus-related concerns, she can weather fewer defections. This Congress’s proxy voting rules won’t be in effect at the start of the next, and so a process that ought to be determined by where members’ support actually lies now depends also on vulnerable legislators’ willingness to endanger their health. Republicans in the Senate, which has yet to approve any form of remote voting, faced a similar dilemma when a covid-19 outbreak in their ranks occurred during the confirmation process for now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. None of this bodes well for a disease-ridden winter. The same goes for the states. Legislatures are bridling at the extent of executive power during this emergency, yet for many of them the only options are to meet and run the chance of falling ill or not to meet at all. The Wisconsin legislature, for example, brought a case to the state’s highest court asking it to strike down Gov. Tony Evers’s (D) stay-at-home orders. The court did, but the legislature, despite vowing to pass policies of its own, hasn’t met for more than a minute since April. Meanwhile last week, the speaker of the New Hampshire house died of covid-19 after an outdoor swearing-in ceremony that was largely maskless.
Many who resist remote voting do so because they believe it would create a bad precedent. That’s true when it comes to normal times: There is value in meeting to quibble, cajole and compromise in person, and instituting remote voting today ought not to lead to a permanent move away from Washington or any other capital. But the logic doesn’t apply when it comes to a crisis. Legislators need to protect themselves to protect their constituents, both today and during emergencies to come.