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Massachusetts State Leaders Use Digital Legislating

The state elected officials from Sommerville, Mass., have reported relatively smooth sailing with digital meetings, despite a few technical glitches, and are glad remote legislating was deemed constitutional.

St. Petersburg City Council members conduct their Thursday meeting via Zoom. (Josh Solomon/Tampa Bay Times)
(TNS) — After about 400 years of doing it one way, last week House lawmakers participated in the first remote formal session in state history.

State elected officials from Sommerville, Mass., report relatively smooth sailing, despite a few technical glitches, and are glad remote legislating was deemed constitutional.

The first remote Legislature

Rep. Mike Connolly called this a big step for the legislative response to COVID-19.

"It's interesting to consider that the House has been performing legislative activity for some 390 years, dating all the way back to the colonial era when the General Court first met in Massachusetts in the year 1630," he said. "So after nearly four centuries of lawmaking in Massachusetts, it's noteworthy that we just cast the first-ever remote votes in our state's history. I do wish that if we were going to make a little history, it could have been under better circumstances. But as it stands, remote voting should allow us to better respond to the current crisis, so it's been worth the effort."

Things have changed for Sen. Pat Jehlen as well: these days, she is managing many constituent problems, especially around unemployment, and serving on working subgroups for economic recovery, labor, and elder affairs and public health, all while trying to keep her community informed.

"Nobody is living the way they did three months ago, nobody is working the way they did three months ago," she said. "I feel like in the Senate – I have certainly been working at least as hard as I did before, probably harder. I'm in contact with my colleagues at least as much as I would be if I were in the State House."

Rep. Denise Provost is not running for re-election, so this is how she's spending her last term in the House.

"It's nothing I ever expected – I did not think my last year of serving in the House would be this demanding and yet, in some ways, frustratingly hands off," she said. "I'm grateful for the technology that's available: I was in Zoom meetings yesterday from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, I'm on the telephone all the time and texting all the time, I vote from my landline or join group conversations on the landline so I have my mobile free to text at the same time."

Ensuring transparency

Provost, Connolly, and Jehlen all said there are still a few procedural things to work out, from roll call voting to speaking up to debate contentious items.

"As it is we have far fewer roll call votes in the House than we have voice votes, and the problem with voice votes is you can stand there and say nay and nobody would know it," said Provost. "It aggregates the vote in a way that can pass for unanimity."

The roll call vote was an issue of advocacy heading into remote legislating: typical House rules require 10% of membership to ask for a roll call vote, but the initial draft of remote voting rules would have increased the threshold to 25%.

"Maintaining the 10% threshold is very important because it makes it possible for a group of representatives to insist that the House take a stand on important issues via a recorded roll call vote, a principle that is very important to me as a progressive legislator because it means the public can better determine where a given legislator stands on any given issue," said Connolly. "This aspect of the remote voting proposal would have made it a lot more difficult to push for recorded votes on critical issues, so in keeping with my commitment to transparency, I'm pleased to say I was the first Democratic House member to speak out about it publicly."

After an intense 24-hour period of advocacy, the proposed rules maintained the 10% threshold.

Staying safe

To Provost, one decidedly positive note is that legislators are staying safe.

"The good thing is that we're not being exposed to coronavirus in a chamber where it's impossible to social distance," she said. "As it is for those of us who work in the State House, we are resigned to the fact we get every single contagious thing that goes around because the ventilation is poor, the building is old, and hundreds of thousands of people are going through all the time, but COVID shouldn't have to be part of that deal.

She encouraged anyone who needs support to reach out and find the right resources.

"I would encourage anybody having difficulty to contact someone: elected officials are fine, just contact somebody," said Provost. "Lots of networks exist now to help people, whether it's food or shelter or testing or getting benefits you need to get by."

©2020 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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