Michigan lawmakers split on voting remotely during COVID-19 pandemic

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan lawmakers disagree over whether Congress should allow for the casting of votes other than in person during a drawn-out recess forced by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Democratic-run U.S. House is weighing forms of remote voting that would allow members to avoid traveling to Washington after several members tested positive for COVID-19. 

Top House Democrats have backed a plan to let lawmakers who can't get to the Capitol due to the pandemic to designate a House colleague who is authorized to vote on their behalf.

Rep. Dan Kildee

But such a change would upend centuries of precedent. Some Michigan members are loathe to depart from the tradition of coming together to debate and legislate, even during a global health crisis.

"There’s got to be some way we can carry on government. We did it during war time. We did it during 9/11," said U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a Tipton Republican.

"When we’re asking other people to be 'essential' employees going into unsafe settings ... and we’re sitting at home doing teleconferences and Zoom meetings and teletown halls? At a point in time, you say it’s time to stop talking at a distance and get back."

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton

The House last convened three weeks ago on March 27 to vote on a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package in response to the pandemic.

The Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday adopted by consensus a $500 billion package of supplemental funds mostly for small businesses, but divisions over the legislation in the House make it unlikely the chamber could pass it in a similar fashion without someone objecting.

So many House members made their way back to Washington on Wednesday for the scheduled Thursday vote on the supplemental funds. Lawmakers were also to consider a change to House rules to allow for future voting by proxy. 

Following opposition from Republicans, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both of California, on Wednesday created a bipartisan group to review the proxy idea and reopening the House, a Democratic leadership aide said.  

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, chief deputy whip for House Democrats, said he's generally not a fan of remote voting outside of an emergency such as this pandemic.

Tradition vs. emergency

"There’s serious value that goes just beyond tradition of us having to debate one another face to face in Washington representing our districts. There's a collaboration and a process of building consensus," said Kildee of Flint Township.

"But we’ve got to be able to get things done in a national emergency, and for a temporary period of time, something like this modified proxy system is about as far as I’m willing to go right now."

Kildee said the plan lets members vote in person, or not, depending on their ability to get to Washington. It side steps the concerns about new technology, cybersecurity and logistics raised by using a remote voting machine or the internet.

The proxy would not exercise his or her judgment in place of the absent member but communicate by phone contemporaneously with the vote for instructions — keeping everything "low tech," Kildee said. 

"The ability of a member to communicate to another member in a trusted and secure fashion is far greater than 435 members simultaneously voting over technology that’s been untested," he said. 

Congress has a disproportionately large number of members over 60 and 70 years old — the demographic documented as most vulnerable to deadly complications from COVID-19. 

Some of those elders don't use technology as fluidly as younger lawmakers such as 43-year-old freshman U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly. 

She favors adopting a mechanism for proxy or remote voting, but also wants to find ways to conduct oversight with hearings or engage in debate over legislation that are accessible to the public.

"There’s lots of pros and cons, but your vote is supposed to be pubic anyway, so when people say we can’t find a secure way to vote remotely — voting is a public act, and you don’t want to do it in a secret or encrypted way," she said.

"I could call in via video so someone would see my face, and I’d say, ‘I vote yes,’ or ‘I vote no.’"

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat, said she is OK with proxy voting during the pandemic but not in the long term. 

"There’s nothing magic about you standing on the floor and voting," Lawrence said. "I am in support of (remote) voting, but I don’t want to take away the hearings, and I think you should have to go to the floor to make a floor statement."  

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield

She feels strongly that, during the pandemic, members who are physically unable to travel or who are at higher risk for infection due to a medical condition should not be excluded from voting. 

"I don't want them to compromise themselves," Lawrence said. She noted Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, age 80, is going through chemotherapy. 

"Why would we demand for him to do his job to put his life at risk?" Lawrence said.

Republicans dislike proxy plan

Many Republicans objected to the proxy proposal, with several saying Pelosi was rushing a vote on the issue this week without enough debate. 

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Dryden Republican, said Congress is overdue to figure out how to fully function during the pandemic. 

"I believe we can come to Washington and work," said Mitchell, who is part of GOP House leadership. 

"For example, we can remote vote — members who wish to — from our offices. We have our own network here. It's not that hard to do and addresses a big part of the concerns regarding cybersecurity."

Mitchell was so frustrated that Congress hasn't met for business that he drove back to Washington and sought recognition to speak on the House floor during Tuesday's pro forma session.

His microphone was cut before he could speak, he said. The Democratic member presiding, Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, abruptly ended the proceeding, he said. 

"I wanted it on the record that we have failed to meet as a body since we voted on the CARES Act three weeks ago. It's been over a month since we functioned as a legislative body," Mitchell said. 

Walberg opposes voting by proxy, worrying about the potential for abuse by the proxy changing the absent member's vote. He also wouldn't support voting from lawmakers' offices.

"It’s my longstanding position that we ought to be there to vote. We ought to go to the floor to vote," Walberg said. 

"That’s what the people sent me to do. That also assures them that most likely I’m not just killing time back home in the district and using proxy voting to allow me to do whatever."

He understands the health risks that some members and their families face in the pandemic. They can justify to their constituents why they don’t return to Washington, he said.

"We can always put in the record how we would have voted, so at least our constituents know what we had planned to do," Walberg said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, has suggested members could reduce the risk of spreading infection by voting in small groups, so there's no mass congregating in the chamber.

"If there is a physical structure to go to, and we can physically get to Washington, D.C., we should be able to do that. I don’t believe that doing remote voting is the right thing," Huizenga said.

"If 'essential workers' means working at a restaurant drive-thru and stocking shelves, it would seem to me — as we are spending billions of dollars — we can easily make the argument that this is an essential function of what we do."

He's wary of voting by proxy because turning over a voting card is "not how the system is supposed to work."

"I have the privilege of being a representative for a two-year period, and that’s our constitutional duty," Huizenga said. 

Lawmakers are also figuring out how to conduct hearings remotely, while abiding by open meeting requirements. They are having briefings by phone and video conference, but there are technical hiccups, dropped calls and long queues for operators to place members into a conference.  

Senators are discussing having remote hearings during the pandemic under existing rules, but leaders aren't entertaining alternatives to voting in person.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, on Tuesday blocked a resolution from GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky that would have temporarily permitted senators to vote remotely.

Mitchell suggested having House hearings in the Capitol Visitors Center auditorium since it's closed to tourists and lawmakers could space out their seating for physical distancing. 

Slotkin said, ideally, her committees would hold public hearings over a video teleconferencing system that's plugged into CSPAN. 

"There’s lots of creative ways to do this," she said. "I don’t have the perfect answer, but I do know this is probably not the last pandemic."