Politics

Can Congress make remote voting happen? Here's what it would take.

Many of the elements are already in place, including some of the tech and some of the money.

Rep. Thomas Massie

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., forced members of Congress to vote for the stimulus bill in person on Friday.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

On Friday, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to muster a quorum to pass the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package. Members of a chamber whose average age is around 50 — with more than 70 lawmakers over 70 — boarded planes and entered the House chamber at a moment when medical officials are warning older people not to travel or gather at all.

The Kentucky Republican's power play is fueling a growing cry in Congress for the means to function from afar in the event of a pandemic or other emergency. "We will resign this body to legislative irrelevance if we cannot accomplish this quickly," said Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., who was one of the first to sign onto a letter to the House Rules Committee last week in which dozens of lawmakers called for remote voting. "It's a total disgrace that we haven't already."

But what would it really take to get it done?

Longtime tech experts who also have experience both with Capitol Hill and state legislatures told Protocol that many of the tools already exist. For instance, the House has already approved a half-dozen videoconferencing tools for official use, including Skype and Zoom. Microsoft, its Azure cloud services and its Teams platform have been approved by the House to offer secure communications, meetings and collaboration. There's even a new legislative drafting tool offered by Markup.law that's been approved for use in the House's secure app store. Amazon, IBM, Google and others also offer many of the same services.

Some of the money is there as well — a lot more than there was last week, in fact. In the bill that passed Friday is some $35 million for the Senate and Congress to "to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally." One million of that is specifically earmarked for the Senate Sergeant at Arms and the Doorkeeper of the Senate, the offices that would be responsible for implementing a rules change offered by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to permit remote voting.

The rest of the money — $9 million in the Senate and $25 million in the House — is largely going to help get lawmakers and staffers set up in remote locations, a source familiar with the provisions said.

"Congress has been getting ready to have people work from home, to have people work in district offices," in case they have to shelter in place or self-quarantine, the source said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Quickly implementing remote voting would be a singular challenge, however. Tech experts who spoke to Protocol had all sorts of suggestions about how to carry it out, from having members use the individual voting cards they employ on the House floor to more common two-step authentication or even pre-planned duress codes to use if they were compromised.

But one House staffer familiar with the issue cautioned that they don't necessarily understand all of the important considerations, such as the need for transparency and public accountability, the need to maintain public confidence, and even the ability of lawmakers to learn to use unfamiliar tech during a crisis that could affect communication systems. Plus, in the House alone, there are 15 different rules that would have to be considered or changed to make it happen.

"Some tech companies have off-the-shelf products that they claim could be used to implement remote voting," the staffer said. "But they're only focused on the logistics. There are major connectivity concerns surrounding a change like this, not to mention constitutional questions."

And, then, of course, there's the can't-do attitude of many members, who still use flip phones and fax machines.

Durbin and Portman's rules-change proposal received a chilly reception from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, who said simply, "We'll not be doing that."

And the House Rules Committee responded to the letter from lawmakers pressing for remote voting with a detailed memo that essentially concluded it was not practical in any near-term way because of the host of rules and security issues.

"Remote voting raises serious concerns for the potential for another person accessing a member's system and voting on their behalf, including 'deepfakes' in a video-based system," the report says, noting that in normal votes, a member walks past a guard and uses a closed system. It also notes that there are ways to address such scenarios, and that the executive branch has ways for officials to work securely in the field, including hardened sites that Congress could replicate. But that would take time and development.

Rose and his fellow proponents say it's too important not to figure it out.

"I don't care. Those rules could go screw themselves," he said. "There's nothing unconstitutional about it. We gotta get this done, OK?," adding that coronavirus is going to require much more legislative action in coming weeks.

"There are military commanders who reach each other through secure communications across the world," Rose said. "Don't tell me in the 21st century, in 2020, that we can't do this. Come on."

Additional reporting by Andrea Peterson

Entertainment

'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Workplace

Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Workplace

It's OK to cry at work

Our comfort with crying at work has changed drastically over the past couple years. But experts said the hard part is helping workers get through the underlying mental health challenges.

Tech workers and workplace mental health experts said discussing emotions at work has become less taboo over the past couple years, but we’re still a ways away from completely normalizing the conversation — and adjusting policies accordingly.

Photo: Teerasak Ainkeaw / EyeEm via Getty Images

Everyone seems to be ugly crying on the internet these days. A new Snapchat filter makes people look like they’re breaking down on television, crying at celebratory occasions or crying when it sounds like they’re laughing. But one of the ways it's been used is weirdly cathartic: the workplace.

In one video, a creator posted a video of their co-worker merely sitting at a desk, presumably giggling or smiling, but the Snapchat tool gave them a pained look on their face. The video was captioned: “When you still have two hours left of your working day.” Another video showed someone asking their co-workers if they enjoy their job. Everyone said yes, but the filter indicated otherwise.

Keep Reading Show less
Sarah Roach

Sarah Roach is a news writer at Protocol (@sarahroach_) and contributes to Source Code. She is a recent graduate of George Washington University, where she studied journalism and mass communication and criminal justice. She previously worked for two years as editor in chief of her school's independent newspaper, The GW Hatchet.

Enterprise

Arm’s new CEO is planning the IPO it sought to avoid last year

Arm CEO Rene Haas told Protocol that Arm will be fine as a standalone company, as it focuses on efficient computing and giving customers a more finished product than a basic chip core design.

Rene Haas is taking Arm on a fresh trajectory.

Photo: Arm

The new path for Arm is beginning to come into focus.

Weeks after Nvidia’s $40 bid to acquire Arm from SoftBank collapsed, the appointment of Rene Haas to replace longtime chief executive Simon Segars has set the business on a fresh trajectory. Haas appears determined to shake up the company, with plans to lay off as much as 15% of the staff ahead of plans to take the company public once again by the end of March next year.

Keep Reading Show less
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a senior reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron's magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.

Latest Stories
Bulletins