By Thom Little, Ph.D.
America is a representative democracy. Voters elect people who meet together to debate and
discuss bills and then vote in the interests of their constituents. That is the way it is supposed to
work. That is the way it has always worked. However, like everything else in this time of social
distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislative process is not like it has always been. In
light of executive orders and legislative edicts across the country encouraging social distancing,
requiring nonessential employees to stay at home and limiting public gatherings to ten or less
people, state legislatures cannot just convene as they always have. So, how can we meet together
when we can’t meet together?
State legislative leaders are finding some creative answers to that question. By the time the pandemic hit, many states were late into or had already adjourned their regular sessions. However, most of the bodies who adjourned in March or early April are compelled by their state constitutions, their legislative rules or public health to reconvene to address the crisis and/or to respond to the responses of the executive branch. Let’s take a look at some of the creative ways state legislatures have fulfilled their institutional obligations to the people in the midst of this crisis.
The Dispersed Legislature. In an effort to maintain some level of normalcy in the midst of the crisis, some leaders have chosen to convene their bodies in their legislative chambers, but with significant changes reflecting the Coronavirus threat. The 38 members of the Arkansas Senate met for a March special session and an April short regular session with members seated on the floor and in the galleries. In the Minnesota House, masked legislators convened on April 14 to consider several executive vetoes and some legislation, but maintained social distance by having legislators stationed on the floor and also in the galleries.
The Open Space Legislature. In order to continue to meet in person while still adhering to social distancing guidelines, leaders in some chambers have chosen to convene in nontraditional spaces adequate for members to spread out. The Arkansas House of Representatives recently convened in the University of Arkansas Little Rock Stephens Center, a college basketball arena 4.5 miles from the Capitol. The 100 members spread out on the arena floor and in the stands and were medically screened before entering the building. On Wednesday, April 22, masked members of the Virginia Senate are scheduled to meet in the spacious Virginia Science Museum, and the Virginia House of Delegates will convene outdoors at the Capitol, meeting under a canopy if the weather requires.
The Drive Up Legislature. In other states where legislators are required to vote “in person,” many are being asked to stay in their cars on Capitol grounds until time to cast their votes. In Michigan, a skeleton crew of legislators and staff, most wearing protective masks, participated in floor proceedings, while the remainder sat in their cars, waiting to be notified when they could enter the chamber in small groups to cast their votes on extending the governor’s emergency order. In Kentucky, members of the House and Senate met recently to challenge some of the actions of the Governor with most members casting votes via text from their vehicles parked outside the Capitol so that they were technically still meeting the constitutional requirement to vote “in person.”
The Hybrid Legislature. Leaders in other states are using technology to allow some members to vote virtually while a majority of the members are positioned around the legislative chamber providing a quorum necessary to conduct legislative business. Last week, a slim majority of members and a skeleton staff of the Wisconsin Assembly met in the chamber, while other members were secure in their homes. As the Speaker Pro Tempore presided, the Clerk of the House called the roll, first polling legislators in the chamber and then polling the remaining legislators who, appearing on screen to cast their votes. Legislative leaders suggested that many older legislators and those with pre-existing health conditions were encouraged to vote from home.
The Virtual Legislature. Finally, several state legislatures have gone all the way, hosting entire sessions virtually, allowing all members to debate and vote online. On April 16, Utah Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President J. Stuart Adams presided over empty chambers while their clerks read their respective rolls and legislator’s faces popped up on monitors in each chamber as they cast their votes. Speaker Wilson offered his support of the special sessions, “I think that’s remarkable, that 74 members of the Legislature will be working for their constituents, passing budget changes and policies, but doing it from their home districts.” To meet public meetings requirements, the public will be able to observe the sessions. On April 10, two days after sixteen of the thirty senators met in Montpellier to approve virtual sessions, the Vermont Senate convened its first ever virtual session, passing four bills unanimously. In a similar manner, the California Senate is meeting virtually.
When it comes to conducting the peoples’ business, the old saying seems to hold: Where there’s a will, there is indeed a way…or in this case, many ways! If you have questions about any of these specific strategies, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.