In the long-ago days when Minnesota lawmakers met in person in the state Capitol, a member who couldn’t attend in person was considered absent, even if they were excused because of family, business or military obligation.
But as the House and Senate began allowing vote-by-phone and now fingerprint-recognition-equipped laptops, being “present” doesn’t require the 201 members to be, well, present. While some members, including presiding officers and members of leadership, are in the House and Senate chambers, many are not. Votes are cast from offices in St. Paul, from cars in capital parking lots or from homes and businesses all over the state.
But could these votes also come in from more exotic locales? Would a member, for example, be allowed to mix business and pleasure or legislative work and familial duties? Could a senator or House member say “aloha” instead of ‘present’?
Maybe not the aloha part, but nothing in House or Senate rules requires a member “attending” sessions and voting remotely to be in their districts, in the state or even in the United States.
But a proposal debated Thursday in the Senate Rules Committee would provide some transparency about lawmakers’ locations.
Last week, a temporary rule was adopted to require senators to report to the secretary of the Senate if they were voting remotely. That rule also required members not present in the Capitol building to report the city and state where they are working from, information would be recorded in the daily Senate Journal.
That was a little too much information, according to an amendment to the rule offered and approved Thursday. Submitted by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, the new version of the rule says members who are out-of-state must tell the secretary of the Senate where they are — but only the state, not the city. A senator who says nothing is presumed to be in Minnesota.
“If someone is voting from California, I don’t think it makes much difference if it is San Francisco or Los Angeles,” said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope.
Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said he was concerned about members in the National Guard or Reserves who are not allowed to say where they are when deployed.
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said the point of the rule is to require the Senate to operate as closely to how it did before the pandemic disrupted operations.
“I don’t understand why just because we have the ability to vote remotely, we should operate as senators differently than we would in a session when the pandemic wasn’t a factor,” Kent said. Back then, if someone had a family or business or military reason to be away from the Capitol, they would ask to be excused and wouldn’t debate or vote.
“Ultimately, if people need to be someplace else, they should just excuse themselves,” she said. Short of that, they should let members and residents know that they are not within the boundaries of the state.
Since it began meeting remotely, the Minnesota House requires members to say where they are by city or town or township during their daily roll call. And even House members voting from the chambers or from offices at the Capitol give “St. Paul” as their location before saying “present.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a DFLer from Brooklyn Park who is always in the chamber for sessions, cited the state Constitution for her desire to have a majority of the House in or near the chambers. The Constitution says that “the Legislature shall meet in the seat of government.”
“An overly cautious approach to this constitutional provision is to have the number of members required to pass legislation — 68 — be voting from St. Paul,” she wrote in response to a question about the roll call procedure. “Given that Chief Clerk Pat Murphy and I are in the House Chamber and that is where we listen to, verify and record the votes, whether the members are voting from St. Paul or not, we are meeting the requirement. But we try to have 68 in St. Paul and we try to document that there are 68 in St. Paul when we meet.”