Mass. Lawmakers Discuss Remote Voting Beyond Pandemic Emergency

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — Lawmakers in both chambers will revive discussions this week about remote voting and other temporary internal rules governing House and Senate legislative procedures during the COVID-19 era, with the House in particular eyeing changes to an "unwieldy" process ahead of its upcoming annual budget debate.

Over the first 15 months of the two-year session that started in January 2021, representatives and senators have been able to cast votes and weigh in on debate from their homes and offices -- or anywhere -- part of a pandemic-prompted shift to the digital sphere to minimize in-person interactions.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Monday, however, that the flow of operations has grown tricky for his chamber and that his team is exploring ways to update its approach, such as by consolidating the number of monitors who record votes cast remotely.

"It's becoming a little bit difficult and unwieldy when you have this mixed breed of a system, where you have people in attendance and leaving and people trying to operate from home," Mariano told reporters after meeting privately with Senate President Karen Spilka and Gov. Charlie Baker. "We're trying to streamline it going from four lines into the chamber to two and making folks declare whether they're going to be in attendance or work from home. These are things that we hope will make us more efficient going into the budget so we don't spend all our time just trying to have roll calls."

Mariano's office last week asked representatives to participate in formal sessions "either entirely remotely or entirely in person, for each individual session day," citing logistic challenges. Democrats on Wednesday will resume their once-regular practice of meeting in an in-person caucus, albeit with a remote access option.

Still, while Mariano said he is interested in some changes to smooth the flow of roll calls, he projected that hybrid sessions will remain a feature in the House "probably until the end of the session."

"We still have folks who haven't declared their vaccination status," he said, referencing what his office last week said was a group of four unidentified representatives who have not complied with a House mandate to prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19. "Until we know that, it's going to be very difficult."

Under existing House rules, those representatives are not permitted to be physically in the chamber, although they can be in the State House, where people may enter regardless of their vaccination status.

The House's vaccine mandate order (H 4121) approved in September included language that keeps the chamber's emergency rules in place until a majority of representatives vote to lift the House-declared state of emergency. A working group tasked with charting the chamber's reopening and COVID-19 response earlier this month advised members that "current emergency rules will remain in place until the end of the 192nd Legislative Session, and remote voting will continue to be an option to all Members."

On the Senate side, Spilka said Monday that she plans this week to seek an extension to the Senate's emergency rules, which allow senators to cast votes without being physically present on the chamber floor and require attendees to maintain social distancing.

After an earlier extension, that package of rules is set to expire Thursday -- when the Senate plans to meet in a full formal session -- without further action.

Both branches have slightly more than four months remaining before the July 31 end of formal lawmaking business for the two-year session. In addition to the annual state budget debate that unfolds in the House in April and in the Senate in May, several other Mariano and Spilka priorities remain unresolved, including a Senate climate bill and a House mental health care bill.

The impending Senate rules extension and House remote session adjustments come more than two years after the pandemic hit and nine months after Gov. Charlie Baker lifted the COVID-19 state of emergency.

With the State House once again open to the public after being shuttered for nearly two years during the pandemic, legislative leaders are embracing some pandemic-fueled changes to how Beacon Hill operates.

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House leaders this month set their sights on formalizing a "hybrid hearing model" that would allow both in-person and remote participation when committees consider legislation, a move praised by transparency advocates.

"Across the Commonwealth, remote access to public meetings has significantly increased public participation in state and local government, and has lowered longstanding barriers for people with disabilities, people with limited access to transportation, and people with work and family obligations," the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MASSPIRG, New England First Amendment Coalition and the New England Newspaper and Press Association said in a joint statement last week. "After the pandemic, access to the democratic process should not hinge on a person's health or disability, or their ability to afford a car, get time off work, or find a care provider. More transparent and accessible government means a stronger democracy for all, and we appreciate that the House is leading by example."

Legislative rules are not the only topic on tap for the twin formal sessions this week. The House also plans to debate an annual road funding bill steering $200 million to the Chapter 90 program (H 4358), while the Senate on Monday teed up bills banning discrimination of natural hairstyles (S 2796) and creating temporary license plates for out-of-state residents who buy automobiles in Massachusetts (S 2372).

Written by Chris Lisinski / SHNS.

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