Congress will allow remote voting for the first time in its history, after the U.S. House approved Resolution 965 late Friday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The measure — sponsored by Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern — authorizes proxy voting by members for renewable periods of 45 days and allows for remote participation in committee hearings.
H.R. 965 could also permanently alter the way Congress operates through a provision that establishes a bi-partisan process to explore digital voting away from Capitol Hill.
Per the directive, “The chair of the Committee on House Administration, in consultation with the ranking minority member, shall study the feasibility of using technology to conduct remote voting in the House, and shall provide certification…that operable and secure technology exists.”
Previous House rules required in person voting only. The Senate still makes decisions by recording verbal “Yeas” and “Nays” on a tally sheet.
Friday’s congressional action is another example of how COVID-19 is forcing every organization in the U.S. to overhaul longstanding ways of doing things, usually through a mix of digital tools.
We still don’t have clear details on what tech the U.S. House will use to implement both the short and longer term provisions of H.R. 965.
The proxy voting arrangement will allow members to vote remotely through designated representatives on Capitol Hill — effectively a form of pinch-hitting for Congress. For remote participation in hearings, there are a range of options that could be selected — from Google Meet to Microsoft Teams. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before the U.S. Senate using Zoom.
On determining long-term means for remote voting, that’s now up to the Chairperson of the Committee on House Administration — representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) — and the ranking minority member Rodney Davis (R-IL), who voted against H.R. 965.
Lofgren offered a preview of how it could shape up in a statement supporting H.R. 965 late Friday: “For voting on the floor, we will rely on a secure email system, coupled with member-driven, remotely-directed authorizations. This system would use secure email for proxy votes: a solid, well known, resilient technology with very low bandwidth requirements that we understand very well from a cybersecurity standpoint.”
Of course, she and Republican Congressman Davis will have to find agreement on this during a time when both parties rarely agree on anything. The vote on H.R. 965 was split along party lines, with 217 Dems voting in favor and not a single Republican member supporting the measure.
In the past, Congress has resisted calls to allow for remote voting. There was discussion of the need for such provisions after the September 11 attacks and 2001 Anthrax attacks. These was overridden by a long time expectation that those elected to represent constituencies be physically present to vote.
Over the last two months, it appeared the House might become a last holdout in the U.S. for in person only workplaces, as much of the country has shifted to tech-enabled measures for remote operations.
Shortly after the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. in March, Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) pressed a resolution with Arkansas Representative Rick Crawford (R-AR) that would allow members to participate virtually in hearings and vote remotely, under special circumstances.
That was nixed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who, at the time, wanted Congress to remain in session and present to pass the first coronavirus stimulus bill.
Two months and nearly one hundred thousand American deaths later, it appears COVID-19 could force one of the more significant procedural changes in the House’s 231 year history.
In person voting could soon be replaced with some form of two-factor authentication, digital voting. This could change longstanding patterns for how lawmakers travel, interact with constituencies, and divide their time between the Beltway and districts back home.