Continuity in Legislatures Amid COVID-19: An Updated Snapshot

By Sam DeJohn, Anirudh Dinesh, and Dane Gambrell

As COVID-19 changes how we work, governments everywhere are experimenting with new ways to adapt and continue legislative operations under current physical restrictions. From city councils to state legislatures and national parliaments, more public servants are embracing and advocating for the use of new technologies to convene, deliberate, and vote.

On April 20th, GovLab published an initial overview of such efforts in the latest edition of the CrowdLaw Communique. As the United States Congress wrestles with the question of whether to allow remote voting, the GovLab has compiled an update on those international and state legislatures that are the furthest ahead with the use of new technology to continue operations.

NORTH AMERICA

In the US, On April 16, over 60 former members of Congress participated in a “Mock Remote Hearing” exercise to test the viability of online proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Kentucky, when they last met on April 1, that State’s House of Representatives adopted new rules allowing lawmakers to vote remotely by sending in photos of a ballot to designated managers on the House Floor.” (WFPL). Lawmakers have also altered voting procedures to limit the number of lawmakers on the House floor. Members will vote in groups of 25 and may vote by paper ballot (NCSL).

New Jersey lawmakers made history on March 25 when members of the General Assembly called into a conference line to cast their votes remotely on several bills related to the coronavirus pandemic. NJ lawmakers moved 12 bills that day via remote voting.

On the west coast of the United States, the city council of Kirkland, Washington, recently held its first virtual city council meeting. Many cities and counties in California have also begun holding their meetings via Zoom.

As compiled by the National Council of State Legislatures, states that have changed rules — many just in the past few weeks — to allow full committee action and/or remote voting include: Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Utah, and Vermont. Other states have specifically said they are seriously considering allowing remote action, including New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, and Wyoming.

EUROPE

In the European Union, Parliament is temporarily allowing remote participation to avoid spreading COVID-19 (Library of Congress). With regard to voting, all members, even those participating in person, will receive a ballot sent by email to their official email address. The ballot, which must contain the name and vote of the MP in a readable form and the MP’s signature, must be returned from their official email address to the committee or plenary services in order to be counted. The ballot must be received in the dedicated official European Parliament mailbox by the time the vote is closed.

In Spain, MPs have been casting votes using the Congress’s intranet system, which has been in place since 2012. Rather than voting in real time, voting is typically open for a two-hour period before the session to vote for the alternative or amendment proposals and for a two-hour period following the session in which the proposals are debated to vote the final text.

The UK Parliament has developed an app for remote voting called Member Hub (Wired, April 23, 2020). Two tests of the system have taken place this week. One involved around 30 participants, and the second involved several hundred. Altogether, 430 people have tested the voting app, which is under development.

Also in the UK is the “Virtual House.” On April 21, a handful of lawmakers returned from their Easter break to approve the continuation of democracy via a “virtual Parliament,” a remarkable and unanimous vote to overturn the way things have been done there for over 700 years, and to keep on arguing — but at a proper distance. You can find an update on the first steps and what it will look like here.

In Wales, members of the Welsh assembly on April 1 used Zoom video conferencing for its weekly plenary session, the first for any parliament in the UK (The Hill).

In the Isle of Man, a self-governing crown dependency, members of its parliament will debate and vote on legislation over audio link (The Hill)

LATIN AMERICA

The Inter-Parliamentary Union reports that In Argentina, the President of the Chamber of Deputies has approved working remotely via Zoom and videoconference. The videoconferences are broadcast live on Diputados TV. Deputies have access to a digital signature through the Token system for submissions of projects. In the Senate, committee meetings take place via videoconference and are broadcast on the channel Senado TV. A new remote working platform, Senado Móvil, has also been set up, and can be accessed with a username and password. It allows access to the Intranet, institutional emails, the “Comdoc” administrative system and shared files so that coordinated tasks can be carried out in workgroups.

In Chile, recognizing that a majority of the parliament’s members are part of the at-risk population for COVID-19, the Senate has met remotely via Zoom to debate issues ranging from extending postnatal leave to forbidding the denial of basic services during the epidemic. During a deliberation, the Chair of the Committee operates a clock that shows the timing of the session and mutes and unmutes members. For voting, each member appears on the screen and states their vote. Legislation has already been passed using this method. For instance, legislation regulating access to unemployment insurance during exceptional circumstances was enacted in early April.

In Brazil, the Congresso Nacional do Brasil (National Congress) has passed a new resolution which enables the 594 Members of both chambers to work remotely. Both houses use the Zoom video conferencing software for deliberation. While members of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) have the option to participate in person, all participation in the Senate (the upper house) is now virtual. For electronic voting, the Chamber uses an application known as Infoleg that is available on smartphones and tablets. Lawmakers must register their device in advance and sign-in using a security code sent to their mobile device. Here is an intro to the system used in the Senate. Cristiano Ferri, Founder of the Hacker Lab in the Brazilian House of Representatives, describes how the Brazilian parliament is responding to COVID-19 in this video.

In Paraguay, the Senate has held its first virtual session involving 42 lawmakers (April 14, 2020).

ASIA

In the Maldives, the 87 lawmakers of Parliament are convening online using Microsoft Teams video conferencing technology, instead of physically being present at the parliament house, known as the People’s Majlis, in the capital Malé. Sessions are also being broadcast on television in real time, as well as on social media.

On the other end of the spectrum, South Korea recently held the world’s first nationwide legislative elections since the outbreak. Each polling station was equipped with hand sanitizer and disposable gloves; voters, wearing masks and standing far apart, had their temperatures checked at the entrances.

This list is not exhaustive. If you know of any other examples you would like to share please contact [email protected]