Fully remote, secure voting for Congress could be possible

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The pandemic has scrambled operations of Congress no less than any other governmental entity. Members have had online hearings and meetings by the thousands. But the only remote voting allowed was by proxy. Now the House administration committee has confirmed that a technology for secure, full remote voting exists. One person urging this move for a long time is the policy director at Demand Progress. Daniel Schuman joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk more.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Daniel, good to have you back.

Daniel Schuman: It’s a pleasure to be back. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: And give us the quick background here. Proxy voting means Harry calls up Sally and says, put me down for a yes or no. But that’s not really remote voting in the sense that we understand using the internet, correct?

Daniel Schuman: That’s exactly right. So proxy voting is you write a letter or send an email and you ask someone to vote for you, and they go and cast the vote, you can’t participate in the deliberations that’s taking place. Remote voting, by contrast, is like you can participate in debate. And you actually push the button yourself. You’re pushing it through the internet, but it’s the same thing.

Tom Temin: Alright, I guess if they could have done remote voting over the decades, they could have had buttons in the offices, like buzzer types of things, like the clocks they have their with the signal them when something’s going on. So has the challenge for the Congress been technology, or has it been their sense that this might not be legal or constitutional?

Daniel Schuman: So it’s a little bit of both. There’s a strong reluctance among all the members that they don’t want to be anyplace else but in the Capitol Complex. The speaker has made this abundantly clear, as has the Senate majority leader, that they think that the best way of engaging in deliberations and voting is to be there in person. That said, in the context of the pandemic, there is a real concern that if you can’t assemble in person, then the legislature becomes defunct. And that was really the crux of the fight that took place for a number of months earlier this year about can you and would you put in place another mechanism that allowed members to be able to participate in the legislative process, even if they weren’t able to be physically present. And the result on the House side was what we were just discussing, which is this proxy voting system, where you have to have some people physically present and other people basically call or email or communicate with those who are present to vote for them. That’s for voting on the floor. In the committees, it’s a little bit different, where you can actually vote and participate remotely sort of through that process. But it took a long time sort of put this in place. And the Senate’s not there at all, the Senate hasn’t changed its rules, Senate rules require a majority be physically present. And those rules mean that committees can’t report out legislation unless you have a majority physically present. It means that on the floor, you don’t have a quorum unless you have the requisite number there as well. And this creates a number of sort of bottlenecks in terms of how legislation can move. And the practical effect of this is that on the House side, you have waves of members coming in to vote in person. So you have 20, 30, 40 people on the floor at a time and you have to move them through. So legislation moves a lot slower. And that individual members are less powerful, because there’s fewer bills, and there’s fewer amendment opportunities. So the nature of the legislative process has changed, it’s become even more controlled by leadership than it had been previously.

Tom Temin: Got it. And just review, if you would, for us what Demand Progress has been pushing with respect to modernization, let’s call it. of the Congress.

Daniel Schuman: So there’s a number of things that Congress should be doing. One is it should be taking better advantage of technology, a lot of things are done by hand or in person that doesn’t need to be done that way. So for example, and this is a silly example, but it’s a useful one, which is if you want to introduce a bill until March or April or May, in the House, you literally had to go down to the floor and you had to take a piece of paper and you had to stick it in a box called the hopper. Now you can email it. And this is an example of, previously you had have all the staff in the office, they didn’t really have a telework policy, at least not one that was real. Now you have the vast majority of staff teleworking, which is something they’ve never happened before. Their technological orientation was always this sort of high touch in person experience. And they’re trying to make this work in a context where the general public is not allowed in the Capitol Complex and it’s generally not safe for most staff to be in the Capitol Complex.

Tom Temin: And looking at the report from the staff that came up through the Administration Committee, it looked as if they had checked not only with foreign legislators, but also with some of the state legislators here in the United States. So this idea of remote voting, I guess, is not starting here with the US Congress.

Daniel Schuman: No, it started overseas, Australia and New Zealand and Brazil had mechanisms in place if a member was ill, or pregnant. This came out originally through parental leave for pregnant moms or moms with new kids in Australia, New Zealand. They had a mechanism for those members feel the vote remotely, they would engage in a different version of proxy voting. And then in South America, there was a number of mechanisms that were almost immediately put in place in the context of the coronavirus, also in Spain and in Central Europe. The technology exists to do all this, right. I mean, there’s some security concerns. But a lot of these concerns kind of vanish since these votes are public and not private. That’s the huge distinction here since you can check to make sure that your vote was accurately recorded, a lot of the security concerns sort of dissipate. And then it becomes a question of, do you want to do this, not necessarily whether it’s safe or possible to do this, because you certainly can do it. We did a mock hearing in April or May, with 30 something former members of Congress, and we had General Petraeus come and testify. And he talked about how he ran the wars remotely, and how he would participate with teleconferences with the White House and with the Southern Command remotely by engaging in teleconference. The technology has been here to do this for a while. But the federal legislature has been very reluctant to sort of go in this direction. So they sort of look to the examples that came out of the States and elsewhere to do it.

Tom Temin: And are they by the way at this point, putting in bills, introducing bills electronically by email?

Daniel Schuman: Oh, yes. There have been 100 or 200 bills that have been introduced remotely. They’ve had, I’ve got the data here, 151 entirely remote hearings in the House, 26 hybrid markups, 14.3 million team chat messages. So they’ve definitely moved pretty far along the lines of moving their operations to sort of a virtual setting.

Tom Temin: Got it. So basically then if you want to put something in the hopper, you can do it from the hopper nowadays.

Daniel Schuman: Yes, but only in the House. The Senate doesn’t believe in any of this stuff. Senator McConnell and the majority, they are not supportive of this. While they’ve held a number of hybrid proceedings, if you want to introduce a bill in the Senate, you still need to go and walk past a whole bunch of people to drop it in the equivalent of the hopper on the Senate side. So they have not made these changes in the upper chamber, although the House of Representatives has gone much further ahead.

Tom Temin: So let’s assume then this might have some legs, so to speak, in the House side, because that’s the committee that found that you can do this safely now, at least technically. What has to happen? A rule has to be established. Does this divide on party lines, whether people are for or against remote voting? Or what’s the prospect here?

Daniel Schuman: That’s a great question. So there was strong Republican opposition in the House to proxy voting. Some of this was founded on constitutional concerns. Some of this was founded on they just didn’t like it concerns, or that would change the nature of the House. But there is actually a split within the Republican Party on fully remote deliberation. Liz Cheney, who is in Republican leadership, has previously been supportive of fully remote voting. Their concern in part, some of their concern was constitutional, but some of the concerning part was the idea that a member, what they said was that a member was basically handing off the decision to vote to another member. That’s not actually how it works. The way it works is you’re very clearly specify what you’re going to vote on. And the other person is obligated to do it, as you say, but their concern was that Democrats would basically be handing the ability to make a determination for the members off to leadership. On that basis, they largely opposed proxy voting. Remote voting is different, Republican leadership still seems to be opposed to this, although it’s more split than it had been previously. And a lot of what’s driving that is the politics around masks and coronavirus in the rhetoric that’s coming from the White House. That seems to be more of the divide. It was fuzzier at the beginning, but now it seems to have solidified. There’s sort of this machismo idea like you have to be there in person, because everybody has to be there in person, even though of course, all the guidance is, if you don’t have to be physically at work, then you shouldn’t go to work, unless there’s a need for you to do so. So the divide here is more political than substantive or technological at this point.

Tom Temin: And to get it done, should they decide to does it require legislation in the House or does it simply require a vote on a rule for its own operation by the House?

Daniel Schuman: The House has already voted to allow remote deliberations to happen should a number of circumstances arise. We’ve had the report from the Committee on House Administration, the next step is there would need to be regulations from the Rules Committee. And then at that point, it’s not entirely clear, I think that would be it, I think there would just be a determination that’s made at that point. But we shouldn’t forget that at the end of December, beginning of January, the 116th Congress disappears, the start of 117th. Congress, the House will have to re adopt its rules again. And at that point, they may have the same or different procedures in place regarding remote deliberation. So we have to watch to see what emerges from leadership as to how things are going to work starting in January.

Tom Temin: Yes. And given the fact that the House is much more evenly divided than before. That is the coming House, that could affect the whole outcome of those particular deliberations.

Daniel Schuman: Yeah, I mean, historically, the majority has voted sort of on block for the rules. The House Democrats could separate out remote voting, remote deliberations from the other parts of the rules package. I suspect that there isn’t any danger that whatever Democrats want to do in the House that they’ll be able to do. The Senate is kind of a different question. The Senate doesn’t change its rules, but as it gets closer in terms of 50/50, there are a number of Republicans in the Senate who support two forms of remote deliberation and there’s the question of does that change the circumstances where some Republican Senators and Democratic Senators might be able to join together. Senator Portman and Senator Durbin have legislation to do this. But my suspicion is that the Senate is going to stay the way the Senate is, the House is going to stay the way the House is. We see a number of members sick. Senator Grassley, for example, has coronavirus. More than 70 members of Congress have contracted coronavirus. They’re going to try to muscle it through. But whether that’s successful, whether the Republicans lose their majority because they can’t have all their members physically attend when they need to to maintain control the chamber is something that will be very interesting to watch.

Tom Temin: Daniel Schuman is the policy director at Demand Progress. Thanks so much for joining me.

Daniel Schuman: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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