The California Assembly narrowly passed a proposal on Wednesday that would allow state legislators to vote remotely during emergencies, as lawmakers widely regretted not being able to act during a weeks-long recess amid the pandemic.
The measure comes after other states and cities have relaxed rules to vote remotely during the public health emergency. In California, the Legislature stopped work for the first time in 158 years in the middle of March, before resuming committee meetings in early May.
Lawmakers said they need to continue serving and passing budgets during events like major earthquakes and pandemics.
The state Senate has until June 25 to approve the proposed constitutional amendment for remote voting by two-thirds vote in order to place it on the November ballot, where voters would have the final say.
“Let’s lead on utilizing technology to keep the crucial business moving under even the most extreme of circumstances,” said Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, a San Mateo Democrat who introduced the bill.
Several lawmakers had qualms after empowering Gov. Gavin Newsom with broad authority to spend over $1 billion on coronavirus response while the Legislature couldn’t vote or conduct oversight for over a month.
“Every woman and man in this room I think was incredibly frustrated by the experience that we felt when we weren’t able to come to Sacramento and do our jobs,” said Marc Berman, a Palo Alto Democrat.
He said that while lawmakers always prefer to do business on the Assembly floor, he agreed they need to prepare for natural disasters or foreign attacks that could shut down state government.
The measure passed with 54 votes, just enough for a two-thirds majority, and bipartisan backing. But some Republicans who opposed the bill said it should be narrowly tailored to only allow lawmakers to cast a vote remotely, not permit them to use someone else as a proxy vote in the event they cannot attend a session themselves during an emergency.
Mullin said that if the constitutional amendment is approved, the Assembly and Senate would need to finalize provisions that define how remote voting would work, including whether to allow proxy votes.
At least one lawmaker is still not attending sessions due to fears of spreading the coronavirus. Assemblyman Bill Quirk, a 73-year-old Democrat from Hayward, has stayed away because he lives in a retirement community with vulnerable neighbors.
Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks noted that she had to travel to vote in favor of the bill even though she is pregnant. Public health officials say pregnant people should take additional precautions to avoid catching the coronavirus. The Democrat from Oakland said she did not want her constituents to be disenfranchised.