From March Madness to the Olympics, cancellations due to COVID-19 are unprecedented. Even NCSL’s Legislative Summit was canceled—the first time since the organization was founded in 1975. No legislative sessions were completely canceled, however, even though several were cut short or reconvened later. Legislatures found ways to operate: innovating, getting creative and temporarily changing business as usual.
Examples come from Pennsylvania and Vermont, where the legislatures have no set date or time limit on their sessions. Pennsylvania meets throughout the year, and Vermont traditionally adjourns by end of June. Both had a long session road ahead when the pandemic bore down on the country. And both House chambers, each with a relatively large number of members, acted decisively, though differently, to continue legislative operations.
Sometimes being innovative requires a look back to move forward. The Pennsylvania House turned to a method it first used in the 1990s to accommodate a member who was on his deathbed. “We needed to evolve a system quickly,” says House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer, “and proxy voting made sense.”
Proxy voting allows a member who is unable to be physically present for a vote to designate another member to vote on her or his behalf if certain conditions are met. It is something legislatures have allowed in the past; NCSL research found that five legislative chambers allowed this procedure 10 years ago. The Pennsylvania House adopted emergency rules to allow it for now, as did a handful of other legislative chambers.
In Pennsylvania’s case, members wishing to vote by proxy submit a form to the chief clerk, who in turn informs the speaker and the respective caucus whips. All members—those physically present and those following along on the livestream—can see and hear the votes being recorded in real time. On average, about 40% of members voted remotely over the past 3 1/2 months.
Members who aren’t on the floor are still engaged. “I know they are watching,” says David Reddecliff, chief clerk of the Pennsylvania House, “because as I read the bills, I’ll get texts from different members telling me I did a good job or teasing me that I should have read it a different way.”
For those legislators and staff physically present, the House ramped up cleaning protocols and provided gloves, sanitizer and face masks—even getting a complimentary shipment of pinstriped masks from Fanatics, a Pennsylvania-based maker of Major League Baseball uniforms.
Not only did the Pennsylvania House continue meeting during the pandemic, it met more than usual. The House held session 12 of 15 weeks, including every week during the months of April and May, a remarkably full and lengthy session year—so far.
Meanwhile, just to the north, the Vermont House pulled together a very different action plan, adopting emergency rules to allow all members to vote and debate remotely. (The Senate adopted a similar plan.) In Vermont, “remote participation” has a decidedly more electronic and virtual feel than proxy voting.
The House conducted its first virtual session on April 23 using Zoom and streamed it via YouTube for the public. All members were present virtually, including a new member sworn in that day. The House conducted all other floor sessions in the same manner until it recessed at the end of June. The chief clerk, along with other clerk’s office and information technology staff, was physically present in the chamber, recording votes and sharing the results.
Vermont is using a new tool to assist in these efforts: the Everbridge security app, which it implemented in January. In an innovative twist, Vermont’s IT staff modified the app so that it alerts members when a floor vote needs to be taken. Members submit votes using their cell phones, with their phone numbers used to verify their identities. They use Zoom’s raised-hand icon to indicate a desire to speak, to be recognized and even to vote in unanimous fashion.
Those not wishing to use the app or Zoom may dial in by phone, request to speak via a keypad, and ask that their names be called aloud and that their votes be recorded manually by the chief clerk as well. Or they can call the clerk’s office landline.
“We’ve had our hiccups, but you’re supposed to have those when you introduce new technology. ... we’re all learning how to use the mute button.” —Bill MaGill, chief clerk of the Vermont House
The virtual platform has been useful for mirroring legislative actions that ordinarily would take place in person. For instance, during one debate a member raised a point of order that warranted a private discussion among some members. The House was able to use a virtual breakout room for those who wanted to discuss the point of order while the rest of the body waited on the call-in “recess.”
Vermont stayed on top of things by practicing. Before any virtual voting session, the legislature held virtual committee meetings and all-chamber calls. These experiences were occasionally challenging and chaotic—including the time a “Zoom bomber” interrupted a committee meeting in March. But they also allowed members and staff to troubleshoot technological problems, address questions and provide answers.
“We’ve had our hiccups, but you’re supposed to have those when you introduce new technology,” says Bill MaGill, chief clerk of the House. And, he adds, “we’re all learning how to use the mute button.” He credits the staff, particularly the IT staff, legislative leaders and the members for embracing the changes and being open to training and learning as they go.
The Vermont General Assembly gets back to business in August; Pennsylvania’s does so in September. Both are ever more ready to deal with whatever may come their way.
Natalie Wood directs NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.
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