More than 50 Congressional representatives agreed to a March 18 letter in support of remote voting addressed to House leadership. Not all representatives physically signed the letter, however, due to concerns about the coronavirus.

The missing signatures on a document in support of remote voting is emblematic of a larger issue: how is work going to get done on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures across the country?

The Pennsylvania House, on Monday, changed its rules to allow members to vote without being present in the chamber. Legislative bodies in Utah and Colorado have pending legislation to allow for remote meetings of their legislative bodies.

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Other chambers in state legislatures like New Hampshire’s House have nixed the idea of remote voting for now, as did one key U.S. Senator Tuesday.

“We will not be doing that,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during a Capitol Hill press conference. “We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing the Senate rules.”

Whether a rules change would be even sufficient to allow for remote voting in Congress is another question.

“[Sen.] Amy Klobuchar [D-Minn.] is looking into that for us,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “She doesn’t think there’s a constitutional barrier at first impression, but it’s something we have to look at.”

One constitutional issue raised by remote voting is how a quorum is counted, said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

“A majority of each chamber present, literally means physically present,” said Huder, referring to the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 5, but added that for emergency situations “Congress needs a backup plan.”

One of the leaders in the push for remote voting is Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who has introduced the MOBILE Resolution every Congress since 2013. Swalwell’s MOBILE resolution is a permanent change to the House rules. The March 18 letter he signed does not specify the length of the rules change.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at the open government advocacy organization Demand Progress, is advocating for remote voting on a short-term, emergency basis only.

“It is essential to have a backup option,” Schuman said. “If the choice is between a remote Congress and no Congress, the better choice is a remote Congress—even with the problems that come with that.”

“We have to do our job first, whichever way we do it,” Sen. Schumer said Tuesday at the Capitol. “There’s such a crisis here that we are needed to be working and getting the job done.”

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Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.