The debate that would dictate the method of voting in Congress dates back to April 2020, when the Executive Branch first acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic. There are two sides to this debate: vote remotely, and thus guarantee the health and safety of the members of Congress but risk the integrity of the voting process, or vote in-person at the Capitol, and confirm the validity of the votes but risk members of Congress contracting COVID-19. Both options are extreme and would require further deliberation in Congress when a simple compromise already present in the rules would be a sufficient alternative: voting by proxy.
Three months ago, the debate commenced as the House of Representatives questioned whether voting “by-proxy” is feasible. In May of this year, the House passed Resolution 965, which allowed voting in an online format during the COVID-19 pandemic. This shocking resolution contradicted House Rule III, which outlines that all members of Congress must be present at the Capitol “unless excused or necessarily prevented,” and may not allow other members of Congress or other individuals to vote by-proxy. Republican lawmakers argued that voting by proxy is unconstitutional; however, the Constitution allows Congress to make rules regarding how Congress assembles. Moreover, Article 1 Section 4 of the Constitution states that Congress only has to convene physically once per year; thus, making this resolution is fully constitutional. Resolution 965 affirms that in the event of a public health emergency due to COVID-19, there is a renewable 45 day period where members have the option to vote remotely or appoint another member as their proxy to cast their vote. To verify the identity of the member, there is a set of regulations that the member must complete for the Clerk to approve their proxy. These regulations include an original signature from the member that cannot be online or auto-fill and it must be on paper. Furthermore, a statement confirming a public health emergency, leaving the member unable to vote in the House Chambers, is necessary to approve voting by proxy. This requires some members to be present at the Capitol to vote as a proxy. The option to vote by proxy is preferable to voting online because some members are still present and can social distance and follow COVID-19 guidelines laid out by the CDC due to the reduced number of members in the House Chambers. This method was first approved on May 15th and was elongated until August 18th. However, as COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States and numbers continue to rise past the critical point they were at in March and April, voting in-person once again must be evaluated.
In a session held at the Capitol last Friday, July 17th, Congress called on numerous experts in cybersecurity to explore the feasibility of casting votes in an online format. One of these experts, Avi Rubin, the technical director of the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, was set to testify last Friday. Congress found that while the technology to ensure a secure voting process does exist, Rubin did not recommend that Congress votes online due to the possibility of vote tampering and the inability to authenticate the identity of the voting members, despite the available technology. After the 2016 Presidential Election, the United States saw the devastating effects of external interference.
Given normal circumstances, voting remotely would never be an option to fully validate the votes of members and maintain the integrity of Congressional voting. However, these are not normal circumstances. We are in the midst of the most devastating pandemic the world has seen since the 1920s and the H1N1 pandemic; as a result, the health and safety of Congressmen and Congresswomen fall paramount. If you have watched a C-SPAN stream of a session in Congress, you see the incredibly close-quarters members vote in. From the minute members of Congress walk into the Capitol Building, they are unable to adhere to the required six feet of space to follow social distancing guidelines. A staggered entry would fail because members end up in a hall where members are shoulder-to-shoulder when they cast their votes; furthermore, ballots must be cast at the same time, so staggered entry would fail to meet that requirement. Not only are the members of Congress risking their health if they enter the building, but the Congressional staffers and security officers and all others present are risking their health.
Therefore, voting by proxy is the safest alternative. Fewer members of Congress would be present and would cast the vote of the members who would not be present. This compromise, neither fully online nor having all members present, would allow for social distancing guidelines to be followed. All members who are present would be required to wear a mask, and would be at least six feet apart in the Chambers of Congress. This way, the vote of all members will be accurate and validated, and most importantly, guarantees the health of the members who choose to be present as well as those who are voting by proxy. The COVID-19 pandemic brought unusual circumstances, which forced rules to change as well, in order to assure the safety of the members of Congress as well as continuing the integrity of the voting process in Congress.