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Why State Legislatures Should Go Virtual in a Time of Crisis

When an emergency like the coronavirus makes it too dangerous for lawmakers to convene in person, they should be allowed to meet, debate and vote remotely. The technology is readily available.

Members of the Lubbock City Council use Zoom's video meeting platform to conduct business.
Many state legislatures are rushing to close their doors in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among their members, staffs and families. Well over half of the lawmaking bodies have adjourned early or postponed their sessions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some legislatures are planning to return soon, but as more lawmakers and staff test positive for the virus, it is uncertain when many statehouses will resume normal business.

Pandemics, or any disaster, have the potential to devastate legislatures. Making the matter more complex, several states, such as Ohio and Minnesota, require legislators to meet in person; if lawmakers in these states cannot meet face to face, they cannot legislate. These restrictions make little sense in an increasingly digital world and less sense during true emergencies.

Instead of ad hoc legislating, states should adopt rules, procedures and technology that will allow lawmakers to meet and vote remotely, particularly in times of crises. Policies that require legislators to meet in person should be reconsidered.

Public health concerns aside, simply closing or postponing legislative session should never be the first and only option. When this occurs, states handicap legislative priorities and are forced to push vital policy items to the wayside. In Maine, for example, lawmakers were poised to significantly reform the state's juvenile-justice system, but abruptly ended their session in mid-March due to coronavirus fears.

Many other states are considering ending their sessions early as well. These shortened timelines may push legislators and other public officials to try to solve problems without knowing all the facts. Worse, it potentially cuts residents of their states off from critical state-government assistance. In trying to cope with the immediate effects of the pandemic, states continue to plead and scramble for virus test kits, medical supplies and paid-leave assistance. But what about next week or next month? What additional emergency assistance will constituents, businesses and health-care workers need while their legislatures are closed for business?

A closed legislature cannot participate in meeting those demands. And that reality incentivizes the expansion — or abuse — of the executive branch's emergency powers. Without legislative oversight, these powers may long outlast the current crisis.

There also are democratic norms that must also be upheld by lawmakers, especially in an election year. To protect poll workers and avoid large gatherings, governors in several states are postponing primary elections. As of now, it is uncertain whether COVID-19 will interfere with the general election in the fall. If it does, lawmakers may need to consider reforms such as solely vote-by mail elections, a herculean policy change in most states. Adjourned legislatures may not be able to meet these challenges in time.

Fortunately, the technology to keep legislatures legislating is widely available and budget-friendly. Nearly every industry routinely uses tools like teleconferencing to meet when unable to do so in person. Lawmakers could employ that kind of technology to confer, debate and vote on legislation. There is little security risk, as these deliberations are already done in public. In addition, with longer-term investment, state legislatures could confidently use more-secure systems to hold private briefings and other meetings remotely during times of crisis.

Some states are beginning to move in that direction. In New Jersey, one of the states hardest-hit by the pandemic, lawmakers voted by phone last month to pass legislation providing financial assistance for workers impacted by the pandemic. The remote voting was the first in the state's history, and came a week after legislation allowing the practice was enacted. A Pennsylvania House committee met remotely to debate postponing the state's primary. Other states, including Oklahoma and New York, have adopted measures allowing legislatures to meet and vote remotely, and lawmakers in other states have begun to introduce and debate similar plans.

Today, instead of closing up shop, lawmakers should consider these and similar proposals. The reasoning is simple: It is better for a legislature to exist virtually than not at all.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

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