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State legislatures eye remote voting amid coronavirus outbreak

State legislatures across the country are eyeing moves to allow remote voting as the coronavirus pandemic forces lawmakers to try to keep their distance from each other.

Several bodies have already adopted or passed legislation allowing lawmakers to cast ballots away from the state capitols, while some chambers are already set to take remote votes as the outbreak shows no immediate signs of mitigating. 

“I would say that we have heard from quite a few number of states around the country in asking questions about remote participation,” Mick Bullock, public affairs director for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), told The Hill. “I think what you’re seeing is that all options are on the table to continue the people’s business.”

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The New Jersey General Assembly is making history Wednesday with its first-ever remote votes on bills allowing notaries to perform their duties via telecommunications technology and ensuring temporary disability insurance and paid family leave cover people with communicable diseases, among other things. 

Lawmakers in South Dakota are also set to meet next week via teleconference for the final scheduled day of its legislative session. 

And data compiled by the NCSL and shared with The Hill showed that a growing number of states have opened the door to remote voting as they prepare for a likely months-long slog of legislating while also combating the highly contagious coronavirus.

Speaking to The Hill after New Jersey’s remote votes, General Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said the process went “extremely well” and could be implemented on a longer term basis as the coronavirus crisis continues.

“We devised a system that was designed to do things that we think were essential in terms of authenticating people who were on the line to vote, replicating as best we could the chamber setting so that people were able to listen to the proceedings the same way they would if they were in the gallery by broadcasting it online so that people could hear. And I think it went pretty smoothly,” he said. 

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“I think we could use it longer term,” Coughlin added. “I think it shouldn’t be commonplace, that it should be limited and focused on things that are essential.” 

Among other states that have introduced or passed new legislation to allow lawmakers to vote remotely are Arizona, California, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah.

Others will face tougher climbs should they want to try remote voting as some state constitutions mandate votes be cast in person.

“Certainly I think you’ll see a number of states that as they’re looking into this and seeing what is the best way for the business of the state to continue in this current environment that we find ourselves in,” said Bullock. 

The Wisconsin Senate, which already has rules in place to allow for remote voting during an emergency, conducted a dry run of its systems Tuesday should it have to vote on coronavirus legislation during its recess.

Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth (R) told The Hill that he contacted state officials two weeks ago to gear up the legislature’s digital systems in anticipation of having to vote on enabling legislation after Congress passes any laws regarding the coronavirus. Employees have since been working 12-hour shifts to get the proper software up and running.

“So if that comes down there will most definitely be enabling legislation necessary at the state level to enact parts of that. It is very likely that we’ll have to convene in the near term in the midst of this coronavirus outbreak,” Roth said regarding movement in Washington. “I think it is very likely given the context of how this current coronavirus is unfolding around the state and country that in the near term, if we have to meet, it will have to be in a virtual setting.” 

Both New Jersey and Wisconsin’s systems have several requirements to ensure that their voting processes cannot be tampered with, chiefly ensuring that members’ identities are confirmed and that documents are safely accessed.

Coughlin and Roth both told The Hill they are “confident” in the security of their digital voting systems.

Roth added that while remote voting could be needed to protect the health of lawmakers and their staffers — a third of Wisconsin state senators are at least 68 years old and particularly susceptible to the coronavirus — voting during a time of a national crisis will also provide voters with certainty that their government is still in control. 

“Not only is it important for public safety, but I think it’s as important that the people of Wisconsin know that in a state of emergency, in a time of uncertainty, their government, just like the people will endure,” he told The Hill. “I think what you see us doing will reassure people not only in Wisconsin but around the country that we will endure this crisis, we as a people.”

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