In The Shadow Of Coronavirus, Members Of Congress Revisit Remote Voting

Mar 19, 2020
Originally published on March 20, 2020 9:09 am

In the early 1990s, two dozen House lawmakers pitched an idea of voting electronically. The proposal didn't get very far.

Now, as the coronavirus threat grows, one of original sponsors of that measure is trying again.

"At the time we didn't have ... the electronic communications we have today to safely vote remotely," said Ohio Republican Rob Portman, who is now a senator. "Now we do."

Portman is co-sponsoring a resolution with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois to allow remote voting.

And Portman has a lot more company this time.

More than 50 House lawmakers signed onto a plan spearheaded by California Democratic Reps. Katie Porter and Eric Swalwell and Texas Republican Van Taylor to make the change.

And more could sign on after the first two members of Congress made public they tested positive for the coronavirus illness.

Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart and Utah Democrat Ben McAdams said they began to experience symptoms of the illness Saturday night. That was hours after they joined hundreds of House members to approve a coronavirus response package.

The news forced a new wave of quarantines on Capitol Hill.

"There is a health risk of having all of us in the Capitol at the same time," Swalwell said. "Remote voting would allow us to be powerful voices for our constituents without further contributing and deepening this crisis."

Congressional leadership has fended off the idea for years. But during a call with her caucus Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she directed Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, chairman of the House Rules Committee, to explore the proposal.

"I'm really heartened that leadership is thinking this through, and praying and hoping that it is not necessary," Porter said. "But we are asking everyone to prepare ... Congress should be no exception."

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How can members of Congress do their job and practice social distancing? Two lawmakers tested positive for coronavirus, and more than a dozen others are in self-quarantines. That's giving life to an old idea - letting members of Congress vote remotely. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: In the early 1990s, two dozen lawmakers pitched an idea - voting electronically in case of emergency. They didn't get very far. Now Ohio Republican Rob Portman is trying again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB PORTMAN: At the time, we didn't have, frankly, the electronic communications we have today to be able to safely vote remotely. Now we do.

GRISALES: This time, he's co-sponsoring a measure with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. And he has more company across the Capitol, where dozens of lawmakers are pushing the plan. Here's House Democrat Katie Porter of California.

KATIE PORTER: It's really important that my constituents know that I can continue to be their voice in Congress during this crisis, regardless of how this crisis impacts our ability to travel and to gather together.

GRISALES: She co-wrote a bipartisan letter of more than 50 members urging leadership to make the rule change. Here's California Democrat Eric Swalwell.

ERIC SWALWELL: There is a health risk of having all of us in the Capitol at the same time.

GRISALES: Just last Saturday, hundreds of members huddled on the House floor to approve a coronavirus response package. Hours later, two members say they started experiencing symptoms of the illness, leaving a new wave of House lawmakers in quarantine. Here's Swalwell again.

SWALWELL: Remote voting would allow us to be powerful voices for our constituents without further contributing and deepening this crisis.

GRISALES: Congressional leadership has fended off the idea for years, but just yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her caucus they are reassessing remote voting. Here's Porter again.

PORTER: I'm really heartened that leadership is thinking this through, and I'm praying and hoping that it is not necessary for us to remote-vote, that we weather this crisis. But we are asking everyone to prepare and to make contingency plans and to ensure the continuity of operations. Again, Congress should be no exception.

GRISALES: Supporters of remote voting say coronavirus could finally be the push that Congress needs to modernize a very long-running tradition. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.