While leadership in both houses of Congress remain largely opposed to voting remotely in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, some state legislatures have already moved to adopt a remote setup to avoid the dangers of possibly spreading the virus by meeting in person.
One of the first states to do this was Pennsylvania, where many members of the state Senate and House of Representatives have already cast ballots from afar. So to get a better sense of how the process worked, possible kinks in the system and how it compared to a typical legislative session, we spoke with two members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives: Democratic state Rep. Melissa Shusterman, a first-term member from suburban Philadelphia who is also a deputy whip, and Republican state Rep. Tarah Toohil, who has represented part of northeastern Pennsylvania since 2011. Shusterman worked from home during last week’s legislative session while Toohil worked out of her district office in Hazleton, giving them insight into how remote voting can affect the legislative process.
The move to offer remote voting in the Pennsylvania legislature grew out of a concern about what would happen if members continued to gather on the House floor. “We tend to be kind of all over each other in session, there’s 200 of us — that’s not even including support staff in one room — and we sit very close together,” said Shusterman. So on March 16, the House voted unanimously to change the rules to allow for remote voting. (The Senate changed its rules with a vote on March 18.)
And although voting remotely is optional in Pennsylvania — some members have continued to vote on the floor — at least 114 representatives had opted to work remotely by March 25, with some working from home while others worked from their offices in Harrisburg. Toohil said many members decided not to attend because they were at high risk for the virus — some are immunocompromised, and many are over the age of 65. Personally, though, she said she decided to vote remotely because “what if I’m an asymptomatic carrier? I would have no way of knowing, and I would then be bringing that into a room of 203 voting members … not even counting the number of staff.”
The sudden shift to remote work has meant the legislature has had to work rapidly to set up a virtual system to not only cast votes but also hold caucus meetings — which has created some annoyances as legislators adapt to the new system. For example, in one of the Republicans’ earliest virtual caucus meetings, they didn’t yet have videoconferencing set up. “I had to get into a queue and signal that I wanted to speak, so it just makes it a little bit harder when you’re not able to have this face-to-face communication,” Toohil said. That aspect has improved now that they are using the teleconferencing software Zoom, Toohil said, but that has brought its own issues — “I actually ordered a new computer because I can’t do the Zoom meeting on my old archaic laptop!”
Shusterman told us that, all things considered, it’s come together pretty well, although there were definitely some chuckles as members tried to work via videoconference. “There were humorous moments of trying to get certain people to turn off their microphone or, ‘Hey, we can hear that’ or ‘Maybe you want to change the video, you’re a little too close to the camera,’” laughed Shusterman. But she said the process still felt similar to the typical in-person caucus experience. “It still flowed in a very informative and timely manner so we could go back and vote,” said Shusterman.
There were troubleshooting measures put in place, too, to help ensure the process went as smoothly as possible. “Many of us whips had a phone line going with all the people we were whipping that if they needed further clarification on either a bill or the order — ‘What are we voting on today?’ — or just any question like ‘I can’t hear,’” Shusterman said.
As a deputy whip for the Democrats, Shusterman was closely involved in the first remote votes, too. Normally when the House is in session, whips use pen and paper on the floor to keep track of members’ votes and members vote via an electronic voting device in the chamber. But now they are having to adapt that system to the new reality. Toohil said she is still recording her vote on paper, but she now has to scan it and send a PDF to the GOP whip, who then tallies the votes. “It’s definitely not a system that you would want to have to use,” she said. But Shusterman, who is using an online tool to tally where people stand, was a lot more sanguine about the new process. “People were so engaged that they’re also responding to me via text, via email,” said Shusterman. She hoped to use the online tool for tracking votes even after remote voting is no longer necessary.
At this point, though, the House has only voted remotely on legislation that had strong bipartisan support. “I feel like leadership on both sides of the aisle are working together to make sure we’re voting on things that we’ve probably been working on in different capacities for a long time,” observed Shusterman. So while things have gotten off to a promising start, it remains to be seen how well remote voting will work when addressing more contentious legislation. Toohil was not optimistic: “If it is controversial, it’s going to be much more problematic” to vote remotely, she said — “especially with amendments, as the bills change. It’s going to be a very lengthy process. It’s going to be very hard to see, ‘OK, wait, which amendment are we on now?’”
Because her party is in the minority, we asked Shusterman if she was worried about the Republican House majority trying to take advantage of the circumstances to push through controversial legislation, but she told us she wasn’t that concerned. “I think this is bringing people together. Yes, there are always outliers. But on the whole, people are working together, sharing resources, sharing how they deal with their constituents, with different issues — the flow of information is very, very good.”
One concern about widespread adoption of remote voting is that legislators might be encouraged to use it in non-crisis situations, which could reduce face-to-face interactions and affect the personal relationships that are important for getting things done, both within a party and across the aisle. But Toohil and Shusterman both told us they were doubtful that there would be much interest in using remote voting beyond a crisis. “It’s definitely not ideal. I think maybe years from now it’s something that would be looked at, but I can’t see how [remote voting could replace in-person voting]. Voting is so interactive,” said Toohil. Shusterman agreed: “We’re voted into office to be legislators — we’re also public servants — but our oath is to go in and vote on legislation.” She added that it’s often vital to be at the state capitol to attend information sessions on issues and meet in person to help legislators learn more about important topics.
For now, legislators in Pennsylvania and a handful of other states are trying out remote voting, and in Pennsylvania, at least, despite some hurdles, it’s allowed legislative business to continue, and with a spirit of cooperation to boot. “That really gives me hope that in 2020 we’re going to have a better year as legislators, we’re going to be able to cross that aisle more and more because we’re all in this together,” said Shusterman.