Legislative institutions rely on decorum to help get things done.
Decorum—that is, “proper order, etiquette and conduct of members,” according to NCSL’s Guide to Parliamentary Procedure—encourages civility, which in turn improves debate. Some legislative institutions prohibit the use of electronic devices on the floor or in committee with decorum in mind. For example, both chambers in North Dakota and the New Hampshire House, Ohio Senate, Rhode Island Senate, Georgia Senate and Wisconsin Assembly all specifically prohibit the use of cellphones while the chambers are in session.
Anyone who has tried to be productive while getting news updates, texts from the family group chat, and social media notifications can understand why chambers have limited the use of electronic devices during session. Other chambers, however, simply restrict cellphone sounds rather than the presence of the devices. Many chambers allow cellphones, tablets or other devices if they are muted. This includes both legislative chambers in Alabama, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and the Northern Marianas Islands, as well as the unicameral legislatures in Guam and Nebraska and the Ohio Senate, Pennsylvania Senate and California Assembly.
But how do decorum and technology interplay when the “session” occurs in a variety of places, including online? As of this year, most chambers address the use of electronic devices in their rules. Some adopted new rules regarding electronic devices, striking a balance between maintaining decorum and being productive, often with the help of technology, in the wake of a pandemic. In 2021, 62 chambers adopted rules allowing remote participation in session or on the floor via telephone, computer, web-based meeting platforms or new voting applications.
Certain chambers have crafted specific guidelines about behavior in a remote environment. For example, the presiding officer of the New Mexico House may require members to wear headphones. Washington House members are encouraged to use a standard, House-themed virtual background in committee meetings and are required to use it while voting in remote floor sessions.
Chambers meeting remotely also use technology and electronic devices to vote. Some rules specify how the chamber is protecting that part of the process. The Montana Legislature created a COVID-19 Response Panel to determine electronic authentication for members who plan to vote remotely. Other chambers, like the Kentucky House and California Senate, require that members turn on their cameras to verify their identity. The Pennsylvania and Hawaii senates require that the devices used by the members to attend remote sessions are authenticated and that the members’ identities can be verified. On the other hand, Michigan’s House rules prohibit members who are participating remotely in committees from voting on bills, resolutions, motions or proceedings.
For some chambers, the adjustments to electronic device rules were made permanent; others have implemented the changes as part of emergency temporary rules. In the North Carolina House, temporary modifications have been made to allow for cellphones in the chamber to accommodate remote proceedings.
As technology continues to enhance the legislative process, we expect to see the rules adapt. We’ll keep observing and reporting on the progress—with our ringers off.
Mari Henderson is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.