With party-line votes, the General Assembly approved new rules Wednesday that allow lawmakers to cast votes remotely during a public health emergency, suspending the long tradition of requiring senators and representatives to appear in person to make their voices heard.
The new rules are expected to take effect for votes Thursday in the House and Senate chambers. House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, called it a “limited temporary change that allows for our colleagues to represent their districts, cast their votes and make sure their constituents are not voiceless.”
“This is new,” he continued. “This has not been done before in this chamber, but we are facing a 100-year health pandemic that has turned our lives upside down.”
The resolution introduced in each chamber spurred hours of heated debate as Republicans opposed remote voting and used it as a proxy to object to public health orders put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, said the rule change appeared well intended but voters expected lawmakers to show up. “They expect us to be here and that the voting should be a matter of conviction not just a matter of convenience,” he said. “And yes, we have to make sacrifices even in difficult times, even if it puts us in a dangerous situation.”
Liston compared lawmakers to soldiers storming the beach at Normandy to do their jobs despite the risk, and Rep. Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican, suggested those who did not show at the Capitol were “AWOL,” which stands for absent without leave.
The legislature resumed lawmaking Tuesday after a two-month pause because of concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 disease. As many as 17 states allow some form of remote participation in the legislative process, according to Democratic lawmakers, citing data from the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Colorado, many lawmakers remain anxious about being exposed to the disease while in the Capitol despite new safety protocols. Three House Democrats — all members of the black caucus — did not attend the first two days because of health conditions and concerns about the outsized impact of the virus on minorities.
The race factor played a major role in the House debate, as Democratic allies of the absent lawmakers objected to Republican criticism of those who didn’t show. “Do you want them to die?” asked state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver.
The criticism even prompted one of the absent lawmakers, Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, to get in his car and drive to the Capitol to speak on the resolution.
“To be compared to a person that went AWOL, to be compared to a soldier that wasn’t willing to do their duty, that hurt,” said Melton, who has a lingering heart condition after a bout with pneumonia in January. “And it’s a shame that I had to drive across town against my doctor’s orders to speak up and ask for some compassion.”
The resolutions, which would only apply when a public health emergency is declared, would allow for remote votes to be cast during debate on the chamber floors — such as final votes before a measure passes. Legislators would still have to show up in person to participate and vote in committee hearings.
Members of the public are not being allowed to participate remotely.
The chamber floors are the most crowded area of the Capitol. Lawmakers sit just feet apart from each other and space between desks is extremely limited.
In order to decrease the risk of coronavirus transmission, clear plastic barriers have been installed in the House between lawmakers and some legislators have been relocated to spaces in the gallery to increase spacing.
In the Senate, lawmakers have been moved to seating at the chamber’s perimeter and every other desk has been left vacant to keep the virus from spreading.
Republicans also objected to how Democrats made the change — suggesting a shift in the rules should need a two-thirds supermajority vote or a new bill.
“We want everybody to be safe,” said Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “But there’s certain challenges (about) what’s going on here that make us very uncomfortable. … It seems to be a bit of a power grab by the majority party politicians.”
Lundeen said he’s worried that the resolutions don’t allow for Republican input in the process, giving Democrats the ability to impose whatever regulations they’d like. He also worries about remote voting cutting into the time-honored tradition of cloistering lawmakers on the floor when they are taking votes, which he sees as being aimed at preventing them from being influenced by outside forces and voices during policymaking.
“Who knows what’s going on outside of someone’s home if they are remote voting from their home?” he said.
The Capitol remains open to the public and if people would like to testify in support of or opposition to a bill they must appear in person. Lawmakers are encouraging people to submit written testimony, but they will not allow remote testimony by phone or video for the public.
Prior to the pandemic, in some situations, lawmakers could request remote testimony for the public. It’s not clear if those requests would be possible during the current lawmaking term, which has been shortened because of coronavirus.
Updated: 1:30 p.m. May 27, 2020: This story was updated to include new the vote on the resolutions and new information from the debate Wednesday.