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Why proxy voting was briefly a big deal in Washington, D.C.

In May, the U.S. House started using proxy voting, which allows a member to designate another member to cast their vote for them on the floor of the chamber.

Capitol Police officers stand by as members of the U.S. House of Representatives commute to cast proxy votes for the first time in its 231-year history.
Capitol Police officers stand by as members of the U.S. House of Representatives commute to cast proxy votes for the first time in its 231-year history.
REUTERS/Tom Brenner

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate for COVID-19 for people in their 20s is around 0.1 percent. For people in their 50s, it increases to 2.4 percent. For people in their 60s, it is 6.7 percent. The average age of House members at the beginning of the 116th Congress was 57.6 years.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Jim Hagedorn
With the risks of COVID-19 in mind, the House of Representatives recently instituted a proxy voting system that allows House members to designate another member to vote for them on the floor. (The Senate has not adopted such a system.)

The proxy voting measure was back by Democrats, who have a majority in the House. Republicans uniformly disapproved, with their leadership going so far as to file a lawsuit in an attempt to block the measure.  

“I believe this a bad idea for this institution and a terrible example for the nation,” Rep. Jim Hagedorn, Republican of Minnesota’s First District, said on the House floor before the proxy voting resolution was approved. “I recommend a no vote. You know, it’s ironic that as our nation opens up and people go back to work safely and responsibly into their jobs the House is making a move to shut down for all intents and purposes.”

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None from Minnesota

The coronavirus pandemic marks the first time in the history of Congress that the House has adopted proxy voting. In May, the Capitol’s attending physician, Brian P. Monahan, released guidelines for members of Congress, encouraging them to make their staff remote and not to communally gather.

Acting in part on Monahan’s suggestions, House Democrats the House passed Resolution 965, which allowed for proxy voting for a period of 45 days, extendable by the Speaker.

Rep. Dean Phillips
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Rep. Dean Phillips
In order to vote by proxy, a member must register their intent with the House Clerk. And they must designate another member to vote for them, read their name on the House floor, and publicly record their vote.

There are currently 46 active proxy letters registered by the House Clerk: all Democrats, but none from Minnesota. A few members of the delegation have been clear that they support proxy voting, even if they aren’t taking advantage of it. When asked why, Rep. Dean Phillips said he intended on keeping his consistent voting record, if possible.

“No, I do not intend to use it,” Phillips said. “In short, if I am physically able to make it to Washington D.C. for debate and votes, I will be here. My voting record is 100%.”

A representative for Rep. Collin Peterson said proxy voting is critical, in order to establish consistent social distancing practices.

“Congressman Peterson voted in favor of proxy voting,” said Sue Dieter, the Seventh District Congressman’s communications director. “Part of the measure was to allow Committees to operate with remote hearings.” Dieter added that Peterson has been showing up in-person for votes.

While no one in the Minnesota delegation has contracted COVID-19, several other members have. Republican Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart of Florida and Democrat Ben McAdams of Utah were two of the earliest to test positive for the virus in March. But others have followed suit, including Republicans Neal Dunn of Florida, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania; and Democrats Nydia Velázquez of New York, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. Earlier this month, several members of congress refused to wear face coverings on the House floor. Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina, who was one of those members, recently contracted COVID-19.

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Republicans focus on symbolism

The central argument from Republicans against proxy voting is that House members need to put themselves in the same amount of danger that essential workers do. “Health care workers, farmers, truckers, bank tellers and grocery store workers across the nation are showing up to work,” Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota’s Eighth District said in a statement after the vote to enact proxy voting. “Congress needs to go to work just the same as these hardworking Americans.”

Rep. Tom Emmer
REUTERS/Leah Millis
Rep. Tom Emmer
National Republican Congressional Committee Chair and Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer said on Twitter: “Front-line workers, including law enforcement officers & health care professionals, continue to step up and lead us through this crisis. If our constituents show up to work, there’s no reason we shouldn’t.”

In his floor speech, Hagedorn said some might question why a House member who was dealing with stage-four cancer would passionately want everyone to travel to the House chamber and vote against proxy voting. “It’s because it’s a bad idea for this House,” he said. “It’s a bad idea that we don’t do our jobs in person.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that those immunocompromised by an organ transplant, bone marrow transplant, or cancer should avoid going outside as much as possible, because there is a significantly higher risk of contracting the virus: “If you are immunocompromised, the best way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed to this virus.”

Phillips said that the points raised in opposition to proxy voting don’t outweigh its benefits: “I think that would be the American people’s preference to make sure their representatives vote. And that’s what proxy voting allows for. So to me, a much better solution than not coming to Washington and not registering your vote.”