RI House approves rules package allowing lawmakers to vote from home
PROVIDENCE – Pandemic-era rules that allowed lawmakers to vote from home, or wherever they might be, are now the norm for the Rhode Island General Assembly.
The House on Thursday approved a new rules package that limits the opportunity for absent lawmakers to vote, by proxy, "after five consecutive absences" to those "unable to be physically present in the chamber due to a health or medical condition."
The rules bill, approved on a 60-to-6 party line vote with little debate allows – but does not require – the House speaker to request a doctor's note from any representative who votes remotely on bills that have made it to the House floor. (It does not, however, allow representatives to vote remotely in committees.)
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The Senate's proxy voting rule is not limited to those out sick, and was memorably used in the final lap of last year's session to allow Sen. Walter Felag to vote after the fact – on another day, by proxy – on a number of bills, including gun bills, while he was in France for a family wedding in June.
The Senate's no-excuse-required absentee voting rule applies in any circumstance "during any declared state of emergency" with permission from the Senate president, who has not, in any known instance, said no.
The Senate rule that was in play last year, and remains so this year, says: "The presiding officer shall, when deciding to grant or deny the request, consider whether the senator making the request would face a hardship in attending session, or, during a contagion, falls within a high-risk category."
And yes, Rhode Island is still under a declared state of emergency in order to keep certain federal relief dollars flowing, according to Gov. Dan McKee's office. McKee's most recent executive order extended the "state of emergency" until through Feb. 9.
"The State’s declaration and the timing of that declaration is aligned with the federal public health emergency declaration," McKee spokeswoman Olivia DaRocha said Thursday.
"Having this declaration in place currently allows Rhode Island to provide enhanced federal SNAP benefits for qualifying families who are still struggling from the impacts of the pandemic," she added.
The Senate rule states: "The right to vote by proxy shall cease on the date that the state of emergency is officially declared over."
"There is nothing nefarious about proxy voting," Senate spokesman Greg Pare told The Journal on Thursday. "On the contrary, it helps ensure voters are not disenfranchised."
And "proxy voting is a tool the Senate uses only during a declared state of emergency to allow a senator who is unable to be physically present in the chamber, usually for a health reason, to represent their constituents and cast their vote," he said.
He did not address the circumstances of Felag voting from France, but cited the widely reported medical challenges that kept then-Sen. Jeanine Calkin away from the State House for months last year. "She was able to vote during that time period (and hence, provide a voice for her constituents) thanks to ... proxy voting."
To the extent there was any debate, it centered on Republican Rep. Brian Newberry's bid to amend the rules bill to require, at the request of any representative, a vote on bills "held for further study," which is often code language for going nowhere.
As its stands, Newberry said, the rules give the speaker "whoever it is ... defacto control" over the fate of every bill.
"Why do we as a body allow that to happen?" he asked rhetorically. "It's debasing, frankly. I mean why would you work so hard to get elected ... [to] come here to be supplicant to what is essentially a king?"
"Every bill should get a vote in committee if [a House] member wants one," he said. And "no one should be afraid to cast a vote."
In response, House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian said the phrase "held for further study is one of the most misunderstood phrases at the State House."
She said the "hold" gives lawmakers a chance to "talk through their issues" and try to negotiate compromises. "By voting for this amendment," she said of Newberry's proposal, "you would stop that entire process from happening ... and [potentially] force a bill to prematurely be voted on."
The Democrats who hold the overwhelming majority in the House voted down Newberry's proposal, including Rep. Teresa Tanzi, who introduced an almost identical proposal.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI House approves rules package allowing lawmakers to vote from home