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Secure Remote Voting Possible for the House, But Opposition Remains

November 13, 2020by Katherine Tully-McManus, CQ-Roll Call
A view of the U.S. Capitol Building on Nov. 8, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Yegor Aleyev/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — House members could securely vote remotely from outside the Capitol using technology that already exists, according to a report from Democrats on the House Administration Committee, but there remains stiff opposition to an expansion of remote voting.

The House approved temporary rules changes in May allowing lawmakers to vote remotely by proxy, in addition to holding remote committee hearings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But so far, lawmakers have not been able to cast their own votes from afar.

Under the proxy process, which has been extended multiple times as the pandemic tightens its grip across the country, one lawmaker can cast votes for up to 10 others. Proxy voting has already been used to cast nearly 4,000 individual votes, according to the report.

The same resolution that made proxy voting an option for members during the pandemic also authorized the study released this week to explore the feasibility of remote voting in the House.

The committee outlined that a remote voting system must meet four fundamental requirements: Only eligible voters can vote, though not more than once; votes are cast as intended; votes are collected as cast; and votes are counted as collected.

It also said there were certain security measures that could be utilized, such as ensuring security of remote networks, issuing “dedicated voting devices” for lawmakers that would only be used to cast votes, publicizing votes immediately after they are cast to allow members to ensure there was no interference or irregularity, and checking the system regularly for vulnerabilities.

“Pursuant to section 5(a) of House Resolution 965, following consultation with the Ranking Minority Member, I write to notify you that that operable and secure technology exists to conduct remote voting in the House of Representatives,” House Administration Chairperson Zoe Lofgren wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week.

The report itself is not a binding policy in any way. For the House to move forward toward implementation of a remote voting process, the House Rules Committee would issue regulations on its use.

“Whether to implement this is a policy decision for the House to make,” Lofgren said in the letter to Pelosi accompanying the report. “But, in my opinion, there are sound policy reasons for the House to move in this direction during the pandemic.”

But Democratic leaders indicated Thursday morning that they aren’t likely to head down that path.

“This is a required step pursuant to a resolution passed by the House and not under consideration by leadership,” a senior Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call.

House Republicans have been vocal and litigious opponents of proxy voting and are also against implementation of remote voting in the chamber.

They filed a lawsuit to block proxy voting, alleging it is unconstitutional. Democrats maintain that the challenge lacks merit because the Constitution gives the House the power to write its own rules.

In a joint statement Wednesday night, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Administration ranking member Rodney Davis and Rules Committee ranking member Tom Cole said, “Chairperson Lofgren’s letter would pave the way for an expansion of the current proxy voting scheme into a fully remote ‘vote by text’ operation that is unproven, unsecure, and unconstitutional.”

“By shielding themselves from substantive policy debates and questions from the Capitol Hill press corps,” they continued, ” Democrats appear ready to silence the voices of millions of Americans and overturn centuries of House precedent just to protect their own political futures.

“This is a disgrace and would forever alter the institution in which we serve for the worse,” they wrote.

A remote-voting system would likely require several layers of security, including biometric identification, to verify the lawmaker’s identity. The most secure method would likely rely on a device designed exclusively for voting, not on an app on a smartphone, the report said.

In July, House Clerk Cheryl Johnson pledged to members of the House Administration panel that her office, as it has done since its inception in 1789, will support the legislative functions of the House, no matter how it evolves.

House votes take longer now than they did previously because lawmakers vote in smaller waves in an attempt to maintain social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The report says remote voting could improve efficiency and minimize risk for lawmakers traveling to and from their home states to vote, in addition to the risks faced by essential workers of the legislative branch.

“It is of particular relevance to this discussion that a primary rationale in favor of adopting electronic voting in the House 50 years ago was to ‘significantly reduce the time required to vote,'” the report said.

The temporary House rules change to allow proxy voting this year was the most significant update to voting procedures since the elimination of “teller votes” in 1971 and the debut of the current electronic voting system in 1973.

Voting in the House is public, with each roll call vote tallied, which the report says makes the technology to ensure secure voting especially feasible because lawmakers would be able to verify that their votes were cast as intended, the report said.

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(c)2020 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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