Lofgren Opening Statement at Hearing Exploring the Feasibility and Security of Technology to Conduct Remote Voting in the House

Jul 17, 2020
Press Release

Washington, DC – Committee on House Administration Chairperson Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) made the following remarks at the outset of today’s hearing, “Exploring the Feasibility and Security of Technology to Conduct Remote Voting in the House.”

 

Chairperson Zoe Lofgren

Exploring the Feasibility and Security of Technology

to Conduct Remote Voting in the House

Friday, July 17, 2020 – 1 p.m. Eastern

“As this is our first virtual full Committee hearing, it is fitting that I am joining you from Silicon Valley.  In recent months, the House has made important use of new technology – including virtual hearings – to continue operations during the COVID pandemic.  These advances are particularly noteworthy because, as an institution, the House has not always been quick to adopt technology to its legislative procedures. 

“A young inventor once observed what he called, quote, “the enormous waste of time in Congress,” unquote, spent taking roll call votes.  So, the 21-year-old invented an electronic system that would permit instantly and accurately recording Members’ votes, “thus avoiding loss of valuable time consumed in counting and registering the votes and names,” and saving time for more substantive legislative business.  But when he presented his idea to Congress, he was told it would impair the ability of the minority to influence legislation.

“So, the “Electrographic Vote Recorder and Register” – described in the first of the more than 1,000 patents that Thomas Edison was issued – was essentially ignored by Congress.  I’d ask unanimous consent to enter Mr. Edison’s patent, number 9646, into the record, and without objection that is ordered.  It would take another 20 years for anyone to introduce the first bill to permit a form of electronic voting.  By the time the House took its first electronic vote in 1973, more than a century had passed since Edison first suggested the idea.

“It also took more than 40 years from the time Members of the House first appeared on live television to the time that cameras were allowed to broadcast live proceedings on the House floor.

“It is not unusual for any institution steeped in history and precedent to resist technological change.  That was the case for the House when it came to advances like electronic voting and televising our proceedings – both of which we take for granted today.  But we can’t afford that attitude today in the face of the COVID crisis.

“That’s why the House recently passed a resolution to ensure that we can continue to govern during the coronavirus pandemic.  House Resolution 965 authorized new ways to conduct our legislative business.  For example, the House authorized remote committee proceedings – like this one.  The House also authorized remote directed proxy voting on the floor.  And the House directed further study of a third possible tool – remote voting.  That review is the purpose of today’s hearing.

“In some respects, these are new tools for governing – but they are within our authority to implement and they are not intended to replace our regular order.  To the contrary, they represent prudent and responsible steps to ensure that the House can continue to lead during this crisis, and as the resolution makes clear, they are intended to be used only during extraordinary circumstances. 

“There can be no doubt that these are extraordinary times.  Our nation – and the world – continue to grapple with the devastating spread of a historic pandemic. And the spread of the disease in the U.S. is worsening. 

“Today, more than 3.5 million Americans have been confirmed to have COVID.  That’s a greater number than the population of 21 individual states.  More Americans have died in the last few months from COVID than were killed in all military conflicts the U.S. has fought in since World War II, combined.  Plus, because of continuing problems with access to testing, we don’t know for sure how many Americans have actually contracted the virus – but experts believe the actual figure could be as high as 20 million.

“We are still learning about how highly contagious this deadly virus is, how it’s spread and what steps can be taken to mitigate its further spread.  New reports have suggested that the immunity gained by those who recover from COVID may be short-lived.

“As bad as things are already, cases are continuing to rise in more than 40 states.  This week, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Redfield, said that he believes “the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we have experienced in American public health.”

“This crisis demands legislative action and oversight and the continued work of the Congress.  And it also means that we have a responsibility to the institution and the American people to explore additional ways to be able to continue that work in the face of the pandemic.

“Consider the alternative.  In a number of states, outbreaks among state legislators have impacted the ability to conduct state business. In Mississippi this week, more than 40 legislators and staff – including at least 30 members – are positive for the disease.  The Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor, who presides over the Senate, are both positive.  That has left the state government in limbo, with significant pending business unfinished.  In several other states, tragically, legislators have died.

“Here in Congress, nearly 60 Members have publicly disclosed that they tested positive, self-quarantined, or had otherwise come in contact with someone else who was positive.  At one point, at least 22 Members of the House had either tested positive, were presumed positive, or were in self-quarantine because they were exposed to someone who was positive.

“That’s in addition to scores of other institutional legislative branch staff who have contracted COVID – including personnel from the Capitol Police, Architect of the Capitol, the GPO, and others.

“I am mindful that many people are putting themselves at risk by working on the frontlines every day:  from doctors and nurses, to police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, to transit workers and truck drivers, among others.  As the daughter of a truck driver and a school cafeteria cook, I deeply appreciate everything people in many critical lines of work are doing to support their communities and the country, even at risk to their own health.

“However, we in Congress have an option that most of these vital frontline workers do not have:  we can do our work remotely in a safe, secure, online format.  We have already taken a number of significant steps to do that.  In just two months:

  • The House has held 29 votes which included remote directed proxy votes.  Those votes have produced legislation signed into law by the President.
  • House committees held more than 86 committee hearings and markups. These events have included more than 185 hours of testimony, questions, statements, and debate.
  • Of those committee events, 78 were hearings. And of those hearings, 49 were fully remote, while 29 were hybrid hearings, during which some Members were present in Washington, while others participated remotely.
  • More than 226 individuals have provided testimony in remote or hybrid hearings.

“In addition, in April, the Speaker directed the creation of an all-electronic hopper to permit the virtual submission of all Floor documents – including bills, resolutions, co-sponsors and extensions of remarks – via a dedicated and secure email system. Since the policy took effect, 1,307 measures have been filed electronically, while just 51 were filed using the old process. 

“And in my capacity as Chairperson of the Joint Committee on Printing, I directed the GPO to accept for publication in the Congressional Record extensions of remarks submitted with a Member’s electronic signature.  Under this new, more convenient system Members have filed 897 extensions of remarks by email. 

“All of these are remarkable changes in the history of the institution.  We have acted swiftly to use technology because when we maximize our remote work, we minimize needless exposure of everyone who works on Capitol Hill.  And that includes Capitol Police, the cleaning staff, other institutional staff, the press, legislative staff, and Members. 

“Virtual and hybrid committee events have been, by and large, very successful.  Although there have been some relatively small number of technical issues, in considering these, it is important to keep in mind that expanding use of virtual or remote congressional activity, where appropriate, ensures that we can continue to act in a manner that is safe for the legislative branch workforce, while also reserving precious testing equipment and supplies for frontline workers who don’t have jobs that can be performed remotely. 

“The highest levels of all three branches of our federal government have recognized the need to adapt our work to the 21st century – and that we can do so in a safe, secure, and transparent way.  In addition to the changes we have made in the House, the Senate has held numerous virtual hearings.  The Supreme Court – which has long resisted modest attempts to increase transparency and public access to its proceedings – has heard oral arguments by conference call.  These important cases involve critical congressional oversight prerogatives.  The executive branch has recognized the legitimacy of these proceedings by participating in virtual or remote proceedings of both chambers of Congress and the Supreme Court.

“As I mentioned, I represent Silicon Valley, which has become synonymous around the world for technology and the spirit of innovation.  We in Congress must adopt the entrepreneurial spirit and openness to new technology that made my community a global leader and apply it to the procedural and logistical challenges we face in our legislative operations – as well as to a strategy to respond to and overcome the coronavirus.

“Remote voting could be another powerful tool to permit the House to continue its work.  The Committee on Rules has already had significant discussions about the constitutional basis and foundation for using technology to bolster legislative operations during the pandemic.  So that’s not the focus of this meeting today, our purpose here today is to assess the specific issue of the feasibility of using technology to conduct re-mote voting in the House.  With that in mind, I look forward to hearing from our esteemed panel of witnesses.”

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https://cha.house.gov

Congress Number: 
116th Congress