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House panel says remote voting during coronavirus outbreak creates ‘serious’ challenges

The U.S. Capitol is reflected in a pool of rain water on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 23, 2020.

Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As the coronavirus hits Congress and lawmakers start to call for remote voting, a key House committee outlined a slew of challenges in adopting the process in a report released Monday night. 

The House is currently out of Washington, awaiting a looming vote on a mammoth proposal to curb the economic destruction caused by the pandemic. Some members of Congress have worried about returning to the Capitol, particularly after two representatives and one senator tested positive for the coronavirus disease COVID-19, and looked for alternatives to voting in person. 

“While these concerns are completely valid, implementing remote voting would raise serious security, logistical, and constitutional challenges,” staff of the Democratic-held House Rules Committee wrote in the report.

A remote voting system could become vulnerable to cyberattacks or get challenged in court, the committee staff wrote. In addition, it would take time to set up the process, which “likely cannot be accomplished in time to address the current crisis,” the report said. 

Support for remote voting has grown in both parties and both chambers of Congress in recent days. Nearly 70 House Democrats wrote a letter to Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., on Monday pushing for a rules change, Politico reported.

“We need to provide a mechanism through which Congress can act during times of crisis without having to assemble in one place,” the lawmakers wrote. 

The Rules Committee report said the panel would have to change a range of existing guidelines to adopt remote voting, which would compound the technological, security and constitutional difficulties. If representatives could not unanimously agree on the changes, they would have to return to the Capitol anyway to pass the tweaks to the rules. 

The committee outlined several alternatives to remote voting. The report said using existing practices such as unanimous consent or voice vote would be “by far the best option.” 

With unanimous consent, the House can quickly pass legislation without representatives present to vote. However, any one lawmaker can object and hold up a bill. 

The House used unanimous consent to pass changes to the last piece of coronavirus relief legislation earlier this month. But objections from Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, delayed its approval. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNBC on Tuesday that she hopes to use unanimous consent to pass the developing Senate agreement on a stimulus package. She said if that method fails, she would bring the House back, pass the chamber’s own plan and go to a conference committee with the Senate — which would hold up desperately needed aid.

Under existing rules, House members could also vote in person but with the vote open for longer than usual, which would reduce the number of people on the chamber’s floor. The House could also set a provisional quorum, which would essentially allow lawmakers to pass legislation even with mass vacancies. 

The Rules Committee report lists potential rules changes aside from remote voting. The House could increase the number of objections required to block a bill from passing by unanimous consent. 

The chamber could also establish proxy voting, in which a representative unable to go to Washington gives another member authority to cast an actual vote for them. 

Of course, these potential changes pose one of the same issues as remote voting: if lawmakers object to the overhauling the rules, they would have to come into the Capitol to pass them. 

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