For the first time in its history, the Arizona House of Representatives is allowing a limited number of lawmakers to vote on legislation even if they’re not at the Capitol.
In order to accommodate legislators who are staying away because of the coronavirus, the House suspended a rule that requires its members to be physically present in order to vote.
Democrats said the rule would effectively allow Republicans to maintain their slim 31-29 majority, even if all of the majority party members aren’t there. House Speaker Rusty Bowers would have the ultimate authority of choosing who would be allowed to vote from home under the motion the chamber approved Tuesday.
The rule change would allow up to six members to vote via a video call. There is no end date on the suspension of the rule, meaning the chamber will have to vote again to reinstate the rule.
“I believe there are more than six of us that are over the age of 60,” Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, said on the floor adding that the measure is “not very equitable.”
“It’s certainly not designed to be inequitable,” Bowers said in response, citing technological issues as the impediment to allowing more than six people at a time to vote remotely.
“This is a measure to ensure 31 Republican votes on anything that passes,” Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said, adding that if it was a bipartisan effort, then Bowers would have worked with Democratic leadership on the rule change.
House Republicans saw it a bit differently.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the six-person limit isn’t intentional, but a byproduct of the current technological limit. If the House can find a way to get over the “technological hurdle” to add more people, then they could do so.
Rep. John Allen, a Phoenix Republican, said the opposition by Democrats seemingly ran counter to their desire for coronavirus emergency measures.
“I don’t think we need to hold the medically vulnerable on the floor as some sort of hostage for some greater good,” he said.
But Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, took issue with Allen’s statement. She said she is an at-risk individual who has survived cancer, has asthma and a spinal injury – and she is “not a hostage.”
Democratic members also called for the legislature to take up the budget and attempt to sine die this week in order to try to go to a special session to address the virus instead of voting on the rule change.
“We have 58 members here right now that could do what the voters want us to do right now, which is pass an emergency relief plan right now,” Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, said. “We are 58 people right now who could vote on that….instead we are 58 people who are voting on an inadequate plan to keep the legislature running.”
In a particularly heated moment, Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, took issue with Democrats who are calling for an early end to the session because of the coronavirus. It is unclear if the legislative session will be suspended after lawmakers pass a bare-bones budget this week or if it will be ended entirely.
“This is absolutely ridiculous that people on the other side of the aisle are mentioning sine die,” Roberts said, raising his voice as he spoke, and mentioning legislation he and other Republicans were hoping to still pass on criminal justice reform. “This is absolutely ridiculous to even contemplate throwing away an entire session.”
Chandler Republican Rep. Jeff Weninger agreed.
“It would be a malfeasance of our duty to sine die,” Weninger said. “I’m here to work, and I’m here until someone tells me not to.”
The vote to suspend the rule and allow remote voting was approved 32-26; Democratic Rep. Jennifer Pawlik voted with Republicans. The technology was immediately put to use, as the chamber voted on a handful of bills and Rep. Amish Shah, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Geraldine Peten, D-Goodyear, cast their votes even though they weren’t in the chamber.
Shah is an emergency room physician who has said he will not come back to the Capitol in 2020 because of his exposure to the coronavirus. Peten is self-isolating and staying away from the legislature for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic because she is “in a high-risk group recommended to avoid crowds and public places,” according to an automated response on her legislative email.