Coronavirus Prompts Talk About Remote Voting by Congress, but There’s Little Support for Idea

March 16, 2020 Updated: March 16, 2020
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News Analysis

WASHINGTON—Millions of Americans headed to work this morning by walking, laptops in hand, into a home office, sitting down at a kitchen table, or settling on a living room couch, thanks to widespread self-quarantining due to the coronavirus.

Conspicuously absent from those working from home are members of the U.S. Senate, who are meeting in the upper chamber of the Capitol just as they have since Nov. 17, 1800.

But, as the number of coronavirus cases in the United States heads upward, informal talk around the Capitol quietly continues about the possibility of senators and representatives teleworking, including voting remotely.

Government Affairs Institute senior fellow Joshua Huder, writing in a March 16 post at legbranch.org, roundly rejected such talk.

“While it may be necessary in life-threatening circumstances, it should remain an option only in emergency situations. Otherwise, it has long-term, negative consequences for the functioning of the legislative branch,” Huder wrote.

Among multiple reasons that Huder cites for not going to remote voting, the most serious is this:

“Among the worst features of the current process is the gulf between rank-and-file members and the substance of legislating … If we want more individual member influence, putting distance between members and the process does the opposite.

“It gives leaders even more opportunity to legislate in secret, manipulate the process, and otherwise keep rank and file in the dark. For rank-and-file members to hold their congressional leaders accountable — whether committee chairs or party leaders — they need to, at a minimum, be physically present.”

Huder’s negative assessment is widely shared among veteran congressional aides and campaign strategists interviewed March 16 by The Epoch Times.

“Congress should be a rare exception to the rule that everyone should stop gathering in groups if they can possibly avoid it,” said campaign strategist Spencer Critchley, managing partner of the California-based Boots Road Group.

“The legislative process is much more than just casting votes, and especially in these times of extreme divisiveness, we should do all we can to preserve as much human interaction as we can among our representatives, while seeking to restore what’s been lost,” he said.

Similarly, Jimmy Williams, former senior economic adviser to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), told The Epoch Times he doesn’t “think we’re at that point yet,” adding that he believes “Congress needs to pass these timely and important [coronavirus] bills and then get out of town and let staff begin working on a stimulus bill, which we will surely need to pull us out of the coming recession.”

Jim Manley, former communications director for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said he understands “the need to make changes, including banning tourists from the Capitol complex, but I am convinced voting remotely is not the way to go.”

Manley warned that “not only is it important for members to be around to get work done, but, if an exception is made now, members will try to exploit it in the future as well.”

From the Republican side, Brian Darling, former counsel to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and founder of Liberty Government Affairs, not only opposes remote voting, he thinks Congress should be present for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

“Remote voting is an abrogation of Congress’ duties. President Donald Trump is in the White House doing the business of the nation and Congress should do the same,” Darling said.

“If they don’t have to show up in person to vote, they don’t have to show up in person for town hall meetings and one-on-one meetings.

“The precedent of remote voting and the fact that Congress is supposed to be one branch working to solve the problems created by the coronavirus both speak to the idea that Congress should not leave town until this crisis has passed. Instead of remote voting, this Congress should stay in session continually until this crisis passes, with no recess and no breaks,” he said.

A major worry shared among those interviewed for this story was the prospect of foreign powers hacking into a remote congressional voting system to manipulate results.

“President Trump uses a non-secure phone as do many members of Congress. The idea that they would use those devices to conduct Senate business scares me to death, considering what Russia did and continues to do,” Williams said.

Manley also worried about “the ability of bad actors around the world to hack the system.”

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc.