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The COVID Pandemic Let PA House Lawmakers Vote Remotely. The GOP Says it’s Time to Restrict that Rule.

The COVID Pandemic Let PA House Lawmakers Vote Remotely. The GOP Says it’s Time to Restrict that Rule.

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

Photo courtesy of Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

Democrats continued to vote on behalf of a lawmaker after police issued a warrant for his arrest, leading Republicans to again call for restrictions on the practice.

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In April, a firestorm erupted in Harrisburg after Philadelphia police issued an arrest warrant for a sitting state House lawmaker.

Less than a week later, authorities revoked the warrant and revealed that it was based on flawed information. But in those intervening days, Republican leaders loudly and publicly objected to their Democratic counterparts casting votes on the member’s behalf while he was absent.

Chamber rules banned the practice until 2020 when the pandemic forced a shift. And despite the recent drama, remote voting shows no signs of going away.

Under the state constitution, bills can only pass a legislative chamber if supported by a majority of lawmakers elected to office. The method those lawmakers use to vote is up to each chamber and its rules.

The state Senate has historically allowed lawmakers to cast votes even when absent on other official business. The system allowed one senator to cast votes from a Taiwan trade mission last November, according to PennLive.

State House rules, on the other hand, previously allowed lawmakers to vote only if present on the floor, though members skirted that rule from time to time. A practice known as “ghost voting” sparked an Ethics Committee investigation in the mid-2000s after a Democratic lawmaker admitted he rigged his voting machine with a wad of paper to vote yes even though he was home in Philadelphia.

Then the pandemic happened. In March 2020, the then-GOP-controlled lower chamber unanimously adopted a rule allowing for virtual voting, also known as voting by designation. It enabled lawmakers to approve a budget that fall with a near-empty chamber due to concerns over a COVID-19 outbreak in the Capitol.

A version of the rule has remained in place since.

Under the current rule, state House lawmakers can file a form with the chamber’s clerk allowing them to vote “by designation.” That empowers each caucus’ whip, or the leadership member charged with party discipline, to vote on behalf of the member on any question. The designation remains in effect unless a lawmaker requests to revoke it.

As of May 21, every state House lawmaker had filed the form, and none had requested revocation, Clerk Brooke Wheeler told Spotlight PA.

That includes state Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia). In February, police said they were investigating an incident at a Montgomery County bar involving Boyle. Democratic leadership then restricted his access to the Capitol but continued to vote on his behalf.

In mid-April, Philadelphia police said a warrant had been issued for Boyle’s arrest for allegedly violating a protection from abuse order. Republicans were apoplectic about the implications of Democratic leaders continuing to vote on his behalf, raging on the floor and in subsequent news conferences.

Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) argued that with Boyle’s location uncertain, bills that passed by only one vote could be subject to legal challenges and that Democrats had made a “results-oriented decision,” not a procedurally sound one.

State House Democrats have declined to discuss the extent of their conversations with Boyle during this period. But amid the dispute, leadership noted that Boyle hadn’t revoked his remote voting designation.

Shortly before the April primary, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office said the warrant had been revoked because the PFA was not active. Boyle’s security privileges were recently re-established, and he has returned to Harrisburg to serve out his final term (he lost his primary election to an opponent backed by Democratic leadership).

In total, the state House held 18 days of voting sessions during Boyle’s absence. By designation, Boyle voted on 3D-printed firearm restrictions, stricter campaign finance reporting rules, and increased regulation of minors’ social media use.

Republicans say their remote voting concerns continue. A Democratic spokesperson told Spotlight PA that leadership would be “happy to consider all proposals” to change the chamber’s rules but made no commitments.

How does remote voting work?

A lawmaker isn’t necessarily away from the Capitol if they opt to vote by designation. They may elect to do so to attend constituent meetings or handle other official duties in the Harrisburg area.

State Rep. Tim O’Neal (R., Washington), his caucus’ whip, told Spotlight PA he is in “constant communication” with lawmakers who vote remotely to understand how they intend to vote. He may not know where they are physically or why they are unable to attend the in-person vote.

“If a Republican House member does not show up on the House floor and votes remote, we’ve been in contact with them,” he said.

O’Neal said that lawmakers can ask him to cast their votes in a specific way, or they can empower him to decide how to vote.

Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for state House Democrats, didn’t address specific questions about the caucus’ internal process for remote voting. However, three Democratic lawmakers told Spotlight PA it mirrors the Republican process.

While Boyle’s designated votes resulted in the highest-profile complaints about remote voting, concerns aren’t new — and they tend to come from whatever party is in the minority.

When the state House first adopted remote voting, the rule stated it could only be used to pass bills if there “has been consultation” between both parties.

State House Democrats argued this meant it could only be used to pass bills with consensus support. The Republican majority rejected that argument amid weighty votes on pandemic-era questions of executive authority. That wording is no longer in the rule.

In a symbolic move, Republicans stripped voting by designation out of the chamber rules in mid-November 2022 after losing their majority earlier that month. At the time, then-Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) argued the process enabled politicking on public time.

“This chamber has lasted and functioned for years, hundreds of years, before there was even such a thing called remote voting,” Benninghoff said at the time. “It was not designed so people could run for two offices. It was designed when somebody may be ill.”

After gaining a full 102-member complement in March 2023, state House Democrats passed rules that restored remote voting, though Republicans have continued to suggest restrictions. Last year, the caucus proposed remote voting only be allowed in cases of personal illness, family emergencies, or disaster declarations.

Michael Manzo, a former top state House Democratic staffer who once managed a 102-101 majority, said remote voting becomes even more important when a caucus needs all of its members to pass a bill For instance, if Manzo found out that more Democrats were on leave than Republicans, he knew the day’s agenda would be filled with non-controversial resolutions.

He added that he wasn’t surprised complaints about it come from the minority.

“I think the people who are most upset about remote voting are people who it disadvantages when you are trying to kill something on the House floor,” he said.

Manzo pointed to a brief, 2007 budget impasse in which a Democratic lawmaker, Dan Surra, suffered a heart attack in late June.

Manzo talked to Surra daily, keeping him abreast of budget developments. However, because Surra was in a Harrisburg hospital bed instead of on the state House floor, he couldn’t vote. That meant the chamber was deadlocked 101-101.

During the handful of days Surra was hospitalized, Manzo said Republicans wouldn’t back a deal in hopes of gaining leverage. A newspaper report at the time noted the delay led to a one-day furlough of 24,000 state workers.

The budget eventually passed with wide bipartisan support.

Critics of government, Manzo said, often want it to mirror business. Remote participation, he continued, is a common feature of the business world post-pandemic, and he said remote voting should likewise be “used cautiously to make sure the people’s business gets done.”

At least 18 states allow remote participation in floor proceedings as of 2023, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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