House committee lukewarm on remote voting for Congress

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A new report from the House Rules Committee expresses skepticism that remote voting in Congress could be conducted securely.

The report, written by the Democratic majority staff, said that allowing members to cast votes outside the halls of Congress would represent “one of the biggest rule changes in the last century” and would raise constitutional issues. It also questioned whether technology to facilitate remote voting would be secure from cyber attacks, citing ongoing threats to election security from foreign governments.

“In the wake of the 2016 election interference and potential 2020 election interference, implementing a secure method for voting would be critical and require an expert staff dedicated to ensuring there are no foreign or domestic attacks threatening the integrity of a vote by any Member, or threatening the system’s functionality as a whole,” the committee wrote. “Even with such a staff, we may not be able to thwart a cyber-attack that could prevent Congress from acting or delegitimize any vote Members take.”

Under current rules, the members use their ID cards to authenticate their identities and cast votes on an air-gapped computer system on the House floor, while the Sergeant-at-Arms regulates physical access to the chamber. Remote voting, the committee asserted, would open the process up to manipulation from hackers or other third parties who might gain access to a member’s credentials or even leverage deepfake technology to vote on a member’s behalf.

Outside of malicious cyber attacks, logistical, technical or human errors that lead to inconsistent vote tallies could also cause members and the public to lose faith in the legitimacy of congressional action, and the unprecedented nature of a switch could lead to constitutional challenges in court.

The report laid out a number of other options, such as using unanimous consent rules and voice votes to pass critical legislation, holding votes open for longer periods, allowing members to vote in shifts, using paired voting or resetting the number of members needed for a quorum to ensure legislation can be passed if significant numbers of House members are quarantined.  Other potential solutions suggested include rules changes increasing the number of objections required to object to unanimous consent and allowing proxy voting on the floor.

Daniel Schuman, a policy director at Demand Progress who has been pushing for Congress to adopt remote voting during the coronavirus outbreak, put out a corresponding report arguing that live video conferencing software would dramatically reduce the possibility of a compromise by hackers compared to a push-button voting system, noting that the Chief Administrative Officer for the House of Representatives has already approved five separate video conferencing systems for members and staff to use. He also panned many of the other solutions proposed in the report, saying on Twitter that it “does not appear to contemplate the problems of House deliberations -- on the floor and in committees -- in the weeks and months ahead.”

“Implicitly, the Report appears focused on the upcoming Coronavirus supplemental vote, set for this week, and does not consider whether it is possible for the House to continue to operate for weeks, months, or longer without being able to deliberate in person,” Schuman wrote in his report. This is an important lacuna, as it is essential for the House and its committees to continue to function -- to move spending legislation to keep the federal government open, consider the National Defense Authorization Act and address other important bills that will come up for coronavirus response, in addition to conducting oversight of the Trump administration.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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