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California Will Let Absent Lawmakers Vote During Outbreak

In this June 15, 2020, file photo, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewoo...

Photo by Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Above: In this June 15, 2020, file photo, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, urges lawmakers to approve the state budget bill, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.

California's legislative leaders said Thursday they will let absent lawmakers vote on bills during the final month of the legislative session after at least seven people who work in the state Capitol became infected with the coronavirus, including one assemblyman who had to be hospitalized.

The state Assembly plans to let four legislative leaders cast votes for absent members during floor sessions. The state Senate will let lawmakers cast votes remotely, but only in committee hearings. Senators must still be present on the floor to cast final votes on bills.

The state Legislature had to shut down twice because of the coronavirus, shortening a legislative session where lawmakers have had to make tough choices to close a virus-induced $54.3 billion budget shortfall. A few lawmakers have missed votes for fears of contracting the disease or because they had already been exposed to it.

Some have participated in committee hearings and floor sessions remotely, but none was allowed to vote, as legislative leaders have worried the state Constitution does not allow it. But with an Aug. 31 deadline to pass bills before the end of the two-year session, lawmakers appear to be making exceptions to avoid another shutdown.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said.

Critics say the new rules will undermine the deliberative process of the Legislature, which is designed for lawmakers to meet in one place where the public can find them and have access to them.

“This is one of those situations where you have to ask if the cure is worse than the disease. What does it mean to open the door to such dramatic departures from our democratic traditions, and is it worth it?” said Kevin Baker, director of legislative affairs at the Center for Advocacy and Policy at the ACLU of California.

Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said they are not opposed to remote voting provided that lawmakers are participating from a known location and safeguards are in place to make sure they are not being influenced by someone off camera.

But he opposed the Assembly’s plan to let lawmakers cast votes by proxy. He said proxies are not allowed to change their vote if new facts or arguments come to light that might be important to consider, undermining the deliberative function of the Legislature.

“If the Assembly’s view was that remote voting was not permitted under the Constitution, I don’t know how they are allowing proxy voting starting next week,” Mehta Stein said. “I’d like to see them make that explanation public.”

Rendon said leaders crafted the rules in consultation with the chief clerk and the Office of Legislative Counsel, saying “we have determined that this is the best way to continue legislating while guarding individual and public health, in a limited fashion and for a limited time.”

The rules will require absent lawmakers to send in their votes the day before a floor session, authorizing one of four legislative leaders to cast votes on their behalf. Rendon said a quorum of lawmakers will be present on the floor at all times.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said Senate officials have been testing a remote voting system since March.

The state Assembly in June passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would let lawmakers vote remotely during an emergency. But it drew the ire of government watchdog groups, who said it went too far and would undermine the democratic process. The proposal stalled in the state Senate.

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