Governments worldwide are remote voting because of coronavirus. Why is the U.S. Congress resisting it?

March 31, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

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As the coronavirus forces companies and schools to move their operations online, one institution is stubbornly holding out: the U.S. Congress.

Despite a national emergency that calls for social distancing, leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives have so far refused to implement remote voting in the U.S. Congress. The decision comes as other countries, along with a growing list of U.S. states and cities, have introduced measures letting lawmakers vote online.

According to Daniel Schuman, a policy director at Demand Progress, a nonprofit that advocates for improving democracy through technology, the EU Parliament is letting members vote by email, while Commonwealth countries—including the U.K. and Australia—have begun using a form of proxy voting initially developed to ensure pregnant members could participate.

In the U.S., Schuman notes the New Jersey General Assembly recently adopted remote voting in response to the crisis, while South Dakota is set to introduce similar measures this week. Other states, including Oklahoma and California, are poised to follow suit. (The National Conference of State Legislatures has a running list of state initiatives.)

All of this raises the question of why the U.S. Congress is not adopting similar measures. Last week, when senators were in the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to ask for a vote on remote voting. Staff for McConnell did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

When members of the House were in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, some urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to propose a change in voting procedures, but she declined to do so. As such changes require members to be present, Pelosi may have missed a critical window to bring voting online.

In response to an inquiry from Fortune, Pelosi’s office referred to a message and report from Rules Committee chairman James McGovern (D-Md.). McGovern’s message acknowledges that members of Congress have expressed concern about traveling during a pandemic but states the best option is for the House to stick with its existing rules.

The report cites security and reliability concerns over remote voting, as well as legal ones. “Some may argue that it runs counter to the Constitution’s references to the House meeting to conduct business in the chamber,” it says. “While arguments can be made in favor of its constitutionality, to avoid a court challenge, it is inadvisable to use unprecedented parliamentary procedures on critical legislation.”

Schuman, meanwhile, offers a more cynical reason for the reluctance of Pelosi and McConnell to introduce remote voting.

“It’s about power,” he says, suggesting that the leaders prefer to keep control over when in-person votes are scheduled to ensure leverage over members. If members could participate in key votes from their home districts, leaderships’ leverage would decrease.

The best way forward would be for Congress to follow what many other organizations in the country are doing, Schuman says, and use videoconferencing during the pandemic.

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