The COVID-19 pandemic posed many new challenges for state lawmakers this past year, not least among them: how to keep “the people's house” open to the public, as some state capitol buildings were closed and some legislative chambers met remotely. This page examines the approaches legislatures have used to integrate public participation in committee hearings.
Although all 50 states live-streamed legislative floor proceedings prior to the pandemic, and many also offered webcasts of committee meetings, in 2020 and 2021, many more legislative chambers began using those practices for on-demand viewing.
Legislatures also worked to find more ways to promote interactive citizen participation in committee proceedings, which in normal times are a primary way citizens can participate in the legislative process. Most legislatures provided email addresses for legislators, committee chairs or committee staff so that citizens could submit written comments or testimony by email. An increasing number began developing online forms for people to submit electronic testimony or to register to testify—sometimes still in person but allowing for more orderly and socially distanced waiting—other times live via video- or audio-conferenced meetings. Some states also added online mechanisms for the public to register an opinion on a bill.
Several states provided these kinds of online forms prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the details of which are provided below, followed by a 50-state table with links to examples of online forms or other features that allow the public to participate in the legislative process.
Many states in 2020 and 2021 adopted or introduced bills and resolutions related to legislative rules or procedures, including measures providing for remote proceedings. The examples provided on this page are not all-inclusive, in that the process might vary even within the same type of chamber, depending on the type of proceeding. For example, some states may distinguish between committee hearings and public hearings in their rules and may adopt slightly different rules or procedures for each.
Though not noted below, some legislatures make available email addresses of committee chairs or committee staff, and some have created email addresses specific to individual committees (e.g., Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nebraska). Other legislatures provide opportunities for in-person testimony and participation.
Please note that some links provided in the table below may be active only immediately prior to a committee hearing, but are provided below to note that the option is available. In addition, many of the online services and information linked below were created during 2021 sessions. Although the 2021 links were active at last update, remote participation opportunities may be limited in some states if meetings are being held in-person in 2022.
For related information, see NCSL’s Legislative Webcasts and Broadcasts and Bill Tracking and Subscription Services on Legislative Websites.
Online Request to Speak or Submit Testimony Forms
State legislatures are making it easier for citizens to testify at committee proceedings by creating online sign-in sheets. This online process also makes it easier for committee chairpersons to manage the committee process. Some states provide the opportunity to request to speak and also register an opinion on a bill or to submit written testimony electronically. Among the earliest states to offer online request to speak features prior to COVID-19 were Arizona, the Florida House and Senate, Hawaii, Illinois, the Texas House, North Carolina and Washington, some of which are described in more detail below or linked in the following table.
For more than a decade, the Arizona Legislature has had an online Request To Speak feature for those who want to testify in House and Senate committees. Prior to 2020, citizens wanting to speak would first register at kiosks located outside of committee rooms at the Capitol; now, they register online. Once registered, they submit their request to speak to a committee and about a particular bill. The system allows committee chairpersons to have electronic access to a list of names of those signed up to speak in favor of or against a particular bill. Individual comments from lobbyists and citizens are available to view on the website, and those in favor of or in opposition to bills are also listed.
The Hawaii Legislature’s Submit Online Testimony feature, which first came online in 2009, operates somewhat differently. It can be accessed from any location using the “Submit Testimony” icon on the home page of the legislature’s website or from bill information web pages. After clicking on the icon, citizens fill out a form to submit their written testimony on a bill electronically. The online form asks individuals whether they plan to be present at the hearing, and, if so, their names will appear on the list of those testifying. The system is limited to bills that are currently scheduled for a hearing and formally referred to a committee. The website cautions that all testimony received is posted on the legislature's website and is accessible to the public.
Online Bill Comment
Several legislatures use websites to gather constituent feedback on specific bills or special topics. States offering this feature prior to the pandemic include Alaska, Nevada, the New York Senate, Washington and Wyoming. Legislatures with bill comment features are listed in the table below.
Alaska’s Public Opinion Messaging System allows Alaskans to send a 50-word message to some or all legislators. The system matches information from voter registration lists, so citizens must enter their information exactly as it appears on their Voter Registration Card.
Nevada's online opinion poll allows citizens to submit comments about and vote for or against bills being considered. The website makes all the comments and votes on bills available on the website to view. Constituent names, addresses and other personal information are not made public, but are available to legislators so they can contact the constituent when desired. The website also has reporting features that show opinions by popularity (most votes received on a bill), by bill number, by zip code and by senate or assembly district.
The New York Senate allows the public to register and submit an 'Aye' or 'Nay' vote on legislation. Constituents also can use an online form to share views with Senators.
North Dakota's Send a Viewpoint (online since Jan. 2013), allows constituents to fill out a form with a viewpoint or suggested voting preference about a selected bill. Messages require an address so that constituent views are routed to the legislators who represent that legislative district.
The Washington Legislature's Comment on this Bill feature allows the public to select and enter a bill number, state a position, and submit comments. Citizens must have an account and submit a street address to identify their legislative district. Statistics for positions on bills and their comments are reported to legislators representing the districts identified.
The Wyoming Legislature has an Online Hotline that allows the public to leave a 140-character comment. Additional background is available here.