Remote voting a vexing challenge for Mass. Legislature

State Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, is one of the few lawmakers regularly attending the skeleton crew sessions of the pandemic era in the Massachusetts Statehouse. As the branch's Ways and Means chairman, he often summarizes the contents of COVID-19 response bills as they come to the floor.

BOSTON — With mixed results, legislative leaders have attempted over the past month to write new laws to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic that can pass without objection.

But the limits to that approach have become more evident in recent days as disagreements have arisen and bills have stalled or not been taken up at all.

Public health guidelines advise against large gatherings, undercutting the basic ways in which the House and Senate function.

As a result, formal sessions, where lawmakers gather to debate and amend bills and votes are recorded, have not been held on Beacon Hill since early March. That's an unsustainable path forward if lawmakers plan to enact some of the borrowing bills that require roll calls, or pass bills that are favored by most, but not all, legislators.

Senate and House leaders have repeatedly said they are working toward the resumption of recorded voting and debate, but constitutional issues and technological obstacles have slowed the process. House Speaker Robert DeLeo's office now says the speaker hopes to present a solution within two to three weeks that would allow the House to resume some functions, such as voting, while continue to observe social distancing norms.

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, last week raised some of the obstacles that have been challenging to get past, such as how to replace the quick, direct conversations that occur between senators when they are physically present to resolve disagreements or answer questions about procedure.

"Our Senate counsel is looking at that," Spilka told the News Service. "If we do it remotely, how do we conduct a formal? To be honest with you, having a caucus is one thing where I keep track of who wants to speak, but then to do that with many amendments and then voting —- it could easily take 10 hours for a basic bill."

Ways and Means Chairmen Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, D-Boston, said last Tuesday that the Legislature is still working toward resuming recorded votes and debate.

"It's certainly a new world, and it's certainly a challenge. And so we're trying to balance that as we go forward. But we're working on it. And, I know, the Senate's working on as well," Michlewitz told reporters a week ago.

The House faces a greater challenge than the Senate if leaders decide to move forward with remote sessions or roll call votes, Rodrigues said.

"We recognize that it's much more difficult in the House, with 160 members, than in the Senate, with 40 members. And we recognize that challenge," Rodrigues said. "They will figure it out, but it's gonna take some time."

During recent weeks of informal sessions attended by a skeleton crew of legislators, the House and Senate have been able to enact COVID-19 legislation dealing with unemployment benefits, flexibility for municipal government, the restaurant industry, the income tax filing deadline, and public school standardized testing.

However, several incidents in the House and Senate over the past two weeks have exposed the challenges of achieving unanimous consent to take up or pass bills.

In the House, Rep. Peter Durant nearly shut down an informal session on April 9 after raising concerns with an eviction and foreclosure moratorium bill. The Spencer Republican offered an amendment to the bill and later said he considered doubting the presence of a quorum, which would have ended the session for the rest of the day.

"At that time, I was willing to use the procedures of the House to help force the amendment," he told the News Service on Tuesday. "It was a way to try to get that amendment in there. I think it was that important."

Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, took that next step last Thursday when he doubted the presence of a quorum and shut down the session for the day after raising concerns with the same bill. Dooley released a statement the next day saying he would no longer stand in the way of the legislation that was supported by a majority of his colleagues and being "pushed hard" by Gov. Charlie Baker, but remained concerned with its potential impacts on small-time property owners. The bill passed and was signed by Baker.

In the Senate, Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Sutton, objected to a push on April 13 from Senate Democrats to lower signature-gathering requirements for candidates trying to qualify for the ballot as part of efforts to limit exposure to COVID-19.

The objection, and the lack of a quorum that would have enabled the Senate overcome it, led to the whole matter being tabled for the day. And while the Senate ultimately passed the bill last Thursday, it's prospects in the House, where there was opposition, were murky before the Supreme Judicial Court resolved the matter for them.

While some bills have hit hurdles, Michlewitz and Rodrigues pointed out that the requirement for unanimous consent has been met in several cases.

"We've been able to work together and get some significant pieces of legislation to the governor's desk," Michlewitz told reporters a week ago after a budget hearing.

DeLeo convened a group in mid-March to work on the House's COVID-19 response, assigning Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow, to look into operational challenges in the Legislature. She said House leadership and the working group have been considering options related to formal sessions and hearings during the pandemic, including, she told lawmakers in late March, any potential constitutional issues that could arise by meeting virtually.

"We are being mindful of our House Rules, as well as ensuring that we have access to the technological capabilities necessary to carry out sessions and hearings, while keeping our members safe," Hogan said in a recent statement to the News Service. "Formal sessions and hearings are the foundation of what we do as legislators and it is critical that we get this right."

A technological hiccup two weeks ago led legislative budget chiefs and Baker's top budget official to postpone by a week a virtual roundtable with economists. While they did convene last Tuesday, the delay and the ensuing glitches that bogged down the hearing highlighted some of the difficulties associated with virtual meetings.

For rank-and-file legislator Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, new bills and amendments are important during the COVID-19 pandemic as they offer some relief to constituents. However, bringing lawmakers back into the building for formal sessions presents public health concerns.

As of Tuesday, the Department of Public Health confirmed 39,643 cases of COVID-19 and 1,809 deaths in the state. The World Health Organization reported 1,773,084 confirmed cases and 111,652 deaths globally as of Monday.

"As legislators, you want to be able to file amendments, you want to be able to argue different points and the conversations that you can have one-on-one with colleagues in the building are invaluable," Sabadosa told the News Service. "We're missing that now."

The Northampton Democrat said her colleagues in the House have been responsive to conversations about various bills and amendments, but she added that legislators might be wary of tackling topics that will generate obejections.

The proposal to allow certain notarizations to be performed remotely, she said, is causing a lot of conversation about what a potential bill should look like. It's an example, she said, of how legislators are going to have to "figure out how to be present without being present." The Senate passed a version of the notary public bill on Tuesday.

"At the same time, you know, we're going to have to deal with more controversial issues, and we're going to have to work harder at providing real relief for people in the commonwealth," Sabadosa said. "While we've passed some very good bills, there are many others that we could be moving through that are either going to involve a lot of money or they're going to involve larger changes to our overall system and are necessary because people are in pain."

As for Durant, he said the Legislature needs to figure out a way to deal with quickly moving legislation.

"When we are moving bills this fast we are missing a lot of things — even when your intentions are good," he said.

State House News Service writers Matt Murphy and Katie Lannan contributed to this report.