Democracy during lockdowns: US state lawmakers adapt

In efforts to pass emergency bills, U.S. state lawmakers are trying innovative ways to safely cast votes. Some states are stretching out across basketball arenas and visitors' galleries. Others are voting through email, conference calls, and remote conferencing.

Andrew Demillo/AP
Members of the Arkansas House convene March 26, 2020 at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Across the U.S., lawmakers have waved traditional public meeting requirements in order to pass legislation funding the fight against the coronavirus.

Members of the Arkansas House met in a college basketball arena, spaced out among 5,600 seats, as they voted on ways to cover a budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus punch to the economy.

When South Dakota lawmakers convene Monday to consider 10 emergency bills, it won't be inside their familiar chambers. Instead, they will be speaking and voting via a video call system.

This is not government as usual.

In state capitols across the United States, lawmakers have ditched decorum and sidestepped traditional public meeting requirements in a rush to pass legislation funding the fight against the coronavirus and aiding residents affected by the widespread shutdown of commerce.

"Social distancing" mandates intended to slow the spread of the virus have upended life for millions of Americans and also have led lawmakers to scrap centuries-old rules about the way they conduct work.

"It is an enormous shift, probably the biggest change to Vermont's democracy since we were founded as a state," Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson told reporters as the chamber adopted new rules for remote voting.

Vermont lawmakers have voted with a verbal yes or no from assigned seats in a closely packed chamber. That changed this past week, when they adopted an emergency rule allowing members to spread out through the visitors' galleries to keep a germ-safe distance from each other.

The next time they are in full session, Vermont lawmakers will be spread out through the entire state, testing a still-to-be-designed remote voting system.

The state experiments are meant to slow the spread of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease so hospitals won't become overwhelmed with a sudden surge of patients. The ill include several members of Congress and lawmakers in numerous states. At least six state lawmakers have tested positive in Georgia, one of nearly two dozen states that have halted or ended their sessions because of coronavirus concerns.

As of Sunday, the virus has infected more than 700,000 people and killed at least 33,000 worldwide, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has about 136,000 cases, more than any other country. 

As legislatures have adapted their rules to the new public health precautions, the public has at times been left out.

Legislative members, staff, and media had to pass a body temperature test and an oral quiz about whether they had any COVID-19 symptoms to enter the House session held at the basketball arena of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. But the general public wasn't allowed inside, instead settling for an online broadcast. The Senate, meeting in the Capitol, followed similar procedures.

Minnesota's legislative proceedings are typically both open to the public and live-streamed. But House members used a series of private conference calls, instead of public committee hearings, to develop a $330 million coronavirus response bill that was swiftly approved Thursday. Legislative leaders said the unusual procedures were intended to safeguard public health.

Such actions can damage the public's trust in government, said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"If you do things in secret, there's a perception that something nefarious is going on, and this is not a time when our governments need to be creating that possibility in people's minds," Ms. Kirtley said.

Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she gets "a little crispy around the edges" at suggestions that Minnesota's process wasn't open. Even though there were no public hearings, she said people deluged lawmakers with messages that were "incredibly helpful" in shaping the legislation.

The U.S. House of Representatives looked into the possibility of remote voting so representatives wouldn't have to fly to Washington on Friday to pass a $2.2 trillion stimulus package. But a House Rules Committee staff report concluded there were too many concerns about its legality, practicality, and security from cyber attacks. The House instead passed the legislation by voice vote, avoiding an in-person roll call.

In Pennsylvania this week, most House members took advantage of new rules to stay away from the chamber as they passed legislation delaying the state's primary elections because of coronavirus concerns. Remote lawmakers messaged or emailed their intended votes to designated colleagues at the Capitol, who told them to a clerk, who entered them into the chamber's voting system.

Ohio lawmakers altered both their attire and location this past week as they approved emergency coronavrius legislation extending absentee voting and tax deadlines, allowing distance learning for schools and letting recent nursing graduates immediately start working.

House members were assigned to eight separate rooms during deliberations to comply with social distancing, then walked briefly onto the House floor to cast a voice vote. Many of the senators who came to the Capitol dressed informally after Republican Senate President Larry Obhof discouraged business attire, "which is cleaned less frequently than casual clothing."

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the South Dakota Legislature already had rules allowing lawmakers to dial into meetings by phone, but those were designed for committees that meet outside the regular legislative session.

The full House and Senate will meet Monday by video conference, live-streamed for the public, with only a few members gathered in two Capitol rooms to try to comply with the rules. The state constitution isn't clear if that's allowed, but "we're just out of options," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Kris Langer.

Some legislatures have decided it's better to remain shut down than to try to sidestep state constitutional requirements to vote in person amid coronavirus concerns.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson had suggested lawmakers could meet "on a football field" or "out here on the parking lot" of the Capitol, if necessary, to abide by social distancing while passing a bill authorizing coronavirus spending. But Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, a Republican, said legislators will convene in April and vote in their chambers.

Colorado lawmakers are delaying Monday's scheduled return to session and have ruled out remote meetings as an impractical move that would deny the public a chance to testify in committee hearings

"The important work being done at the Capitol depends on both legislators and the public," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg. "We feel that it is in the best interest of all Coloradans to recess the session until citizens can safely participate in their democracy,"

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press reporters James Anderson, Andrew DeMillo, Stephen Groves, Steve Karnowski, Wilson Ring, Mark Scolforo, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report.

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