U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said it is unlikely the House will be able to adopt rules to allow lawmakers to vote remotely on a massive coronavirus relief bill or other matters during the pandemic, despite calls from dozens of members for a rule change to allow them to cast votes from their districts.
"I think it's not only important that Congress be competent, but we should also look competent going forward, and I don't think on [a] $2 trillion bill we should have a practice run on a new form of remote voting," McGovern told WBUR.
Yesterday 69 House Democrats, including Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, sent a letter to McGovern, who chairs the House Rules Committee, asking for a "temporary change to House Rules to allow remote voting by Members of the House during national emergencies, especially the current one involving COVID-19."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had already asked McGovern to study the issue, and the Worcester Democrat released a report last night detailing the constitutional, logistic and procedural obstacles of implementing such a rule quickly enough to work during the current crisis.
"I think nobody should close the door in terms of remote voting," McGovern told WBUR. "But to be honest, there are a lot of things that we have to work out to get there."
The first would be getting consensus among the members, and as of now not even all Democrats are on board.
"I've got lots of members who have called me who say they absolutely believe that we should have remote voting. They don't think it's safe to come back," McGovern said. "And I have a lot of members who have called me who said it's our job to come back. We have first responders coming back to work, people in grocery stores ... we have to be an example for the rest of the country and the world."
Such a change would also need some GOP support.
"A lot of Republicans are reluctant to vote for any rules changes at this moment, but many have assured me that they are open it when this is over," McGovern said. "Well, that doesn’t really help us."
There are also constitutional questions surrounding remote voting. It has never been attempted — not even, as McGovern notes in the report, during the 1918 influenza pandemic that has drawn comparisons to the current crisis.
There are also security concerns, McGovern said.
"If China or Iran or Russia wanted to screw things up, they could find a way to shut down communication for whole bunch of areas so that a whole bunch of people can't log in," McGovern said.
House members' technological fluency could also present an obstacle to voting via FaceTime or other electronic means.
"Our members are at different levels, in terms of their technological expertise," McGovern said. "We have some members who still use flip phones. We have some that don't have laptops in their house. I've been on a lot of conference calls, and we have some members who don't know how to press the unmute button when it's time to be heard."
McGovern also cited several alternatives in the report. Among them is varied voting — where members on opposite sides of a vote agree to pair, given that their votes cancel each other out — or proxy voting.
Pelosi signaled agreement with McGovern's doubts about the feasibility of remote voting.
"There are serious constitutional, technological and security concerns about it," Pelosi said of remote voting in an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday. "They can be addressed, but then again for right now, we are working very hard to get unanimous consent, so that we can get this bill done and consider what the options are later."