As Lawmakers Push for Remote Voting Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, Here's What a Virtual Congress Could Look Like

For the first time in 231 years, Congress may be forced to vote remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, but how that would work isn't clear—it's never happened before.

"Our priority is to take care of the needs of our constituents, but for us to act as swiftly and forcefully as we are going to need to do, we have to be able to convene," Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told Newsweek. "Considering that colleagues of ours are testing positive or are under self-quarantine, I want us to still be nimble and able to help."

A deserted Capitol Hill isn't that far-fetched. As Congress debates the stimulus package, 435 House members have already left Washington, D.C. and the 100 Senators are expected to leave after the final vote. Three members—one senator and two representatives—have tested positive for the virus. With an increasing number of states imposing shelter-in-place orders to combat the spread of the virus, members may have to make decisions about the future of the country from their own homes when sessions reconvene.

The idea is controversial—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the idea of remote voting. But Swalwell is one of nearly 70 House Democrats to formally request the chamber change rules to allow lawmakers to vote remotely during national emergencies.

"It could be as simple as each member logging in with encrypted credentials and being visually verified by our House clerks as we vote," Swalwell suggested, though he admitted there are "many different shapes" the system can take.

There would be a few hurdles to overcome first. The two chambers would likely have to reconvene in-person in order to change voting rules, unless a deal is reached by unanimous consent.

Then, lawmakers would need to choose software that is safe and offer transparent results. Cyber experts generally agree that any existing interface would have to be modified to suit congressional needs. David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a board member of the nonpartisan election integrity group Verified Voting, told Newsweek that most of the options available are essentially equivalent "as long recorded votes are public for the American people to see."

Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, agreed that transparency matters more than machinery. He said it "hardly matters what technology you use to communicate votes" if they're "posted where all the legislators can check that they were correctly recorded and object to any errors."

A remote voting application would have to have, at the very least, two-factor identification for members. Jefferson suggested issuing each lawmaker an RSAT, which is a device used in the national security realm that generates a random number every 30 seconds. When a member goes to cast a vote, they would need to type that number in to be verified. Another option would be to issue military-like ID cards that lawmakers would need to scan or swipe into the computer when they want to cast a vote.

"Officials in charge of setting the system up would have to look over options and decide just how much flexibility they want to give congressmen to vote from anywhere or from any device," Jefferson said. "There's a lot of design space there."

The bigger issue would be how to hold committee hearings or full-floor debates. A video conferencing system is the easiest way to imagine such a situation playing out, but Jefferson said he didn't know of any service that could accommodate that many people at once.

"I think it would be a terrible idea," said Mark Strand, the president of the Congressional Institute. He scoffed at the idea of more than 400 lawmakers trying to reach a consensus via Skype or Zoom.

"One of the biggest contributors to the polarization and the high partisanship in Congress is they don't spend enough time knowing each other, they don't build relationships anymore," Strand added. "Encouraging remote voting just further exacerbates that problem."

congress considering remote voting
Members of Congress arrive before the start of the 116th Congress and swearing-in ceremony on the floor of the House of Representatives at the Capitol on January 3, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers are calling for Congress to consider voting remotely due to the coronavirus outbreak. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

McConnell said he will not consider remote voting in his chamber even though two Republican senators came out in support of such a measure on Monday. He said would make some accommodations, like lengthening the time that lawmakers can cast votes, to make sure lawmakers are complying with the social distancing recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears to be slightly more open to the idea. Last week, she instructed House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern to present a report on the chamber's rules regarding voting for members to review and is accepting suggestions from fellow Democrats. Pelosi also announced that House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren was preparing a memo on resources for teleconferencing.

While the debate continues, Jefferson said it's unlikely that such a sophisticated system would be up and running anytime soon. First, Congress would have to reach an agreement on how the rules should change and what system should be put into place. Then, the interface would need to be designed, developed and tested before lawmakers could be trained on how to use it.

"It would take months," he said. "Though this pandemic may still be raging by then."

Rep. Swalwell said he wants to move quickly on the matter because "the need is imminent."

"I want to make sure that not a second is wasted because of physical limitations that we have on convening," the congressman said.

The last significant change to the way Congress functions was in 1973, when the House of Representatives adopted electronic voting. It took three years for that system to be implemented.

As Lawmakers Push for Remote Voting Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, Here's What a Virtual Congress Could Look Like | U.S.