The California State Senate, pursuant to a rule that it adopted on March 16 (SR 86), is allowing remote voting in its house. Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins announced the use of remote voting under certain circumstances. She explained that the Senate was authorizing the use of remote voting to protect the health of those involved in the legislative process and to be “consistent with our Constitution.” Senator Atkins stated that the Senate had consulted with legal experts and open government groups before implementing this new procedure.
The Senate is limiting the use of remote voting to their policy and fiscal committees, but it is not authorized for use on the Senate Floor. Senators who request to vote remotely will have to obtain approval for their accommodation request “due to COVID-19” and will have to participate in the committee hearing from their district office. In addition, the committee chair and a majority of Members will have to be physically present in the Capitol for the committee hearing to take place.
The basis for this new procedure is SR 86 (Atkins) that was introduced and adopted by the Senate on March 16, the day that the Legislature began an extended recess in the spring. SR 86 added Rule 56 to the Standing Rules of the Senate, which is title “Remote Participation in Meetings During Emergencies.”
SR 56 only applies during “emergencies,” which is a state of emergency of local emergency proclaimed pursuant to the Government Code, or even an imminent threat of such an emergency. It allows the Senate Leader to assign, remove or replace any Member on a standing committee of the Senate as well as establish a special committee that is deemed necessary.
During such an emergency, the Senate Leader may authorize meetings to be held and for Members of the committee to participate remotely by telephone, teleconference, or other electronic means. In addition, the public may also participate remotely in the committee hearing by any means that the Senate committee would make available.
Pursuant to SR 56, a Senator who participates remotely is to be considered present and in attendance at the committee meeting, including for purposes of determining if a quorum is present. With a quorum present, either in person or remotely as verified by the chair of the committee, a vote of a majority of the members of a committee will still be required to report a bill, constitutional amendment, or resolution out of the committee.
SR 56 also authorizes the entire Senate to conduct meetings at which one or more Members will participate in the meeting remotely. Under the current procedure, that would not occur, but may be considered in the remainder of the 2020 Legislative Session.
Finally, Senator Atkins released the following requirements for permitting a Senator who needs a COVID-19 related accommodation to participate and vote during Senate committee hearings from his or her District Office, effective July 29, 2020:
- The Senator must submit a request for accommodation to the Secretary of the Senate and obtain approval from the Secretary prior to participating or voting outside the Capitol.
- The request for accommodation must be specific as to the day or days for which the accommodation is requested, and must be resubmitted at least weekly.
- Senators who are approved to participate and vote remotely must be present in their District Office for any committee hearings for which they are approved to participate and vote remotely. The District Office background must be visible without video alteration.
- While participating and voting remotely, the Senator may have only one person present with him or her, and that person must be a Senate staff person, who is to be identified by the Senator.
- While participating and voting remotely, a Senator may not chair committee hearings. A temporary chair will be appointed for this purpose.
- A Senator who votes remotely shall certify each vote in writing using the form or format provided by the Secretary.
- This accommodation for remote voting is adopted pursuant to Senate Rule 56 (adopted by Senate Resolution 86 of 2020) and will be in effect for the remainder of the 2019-20 Legislative Session.
Senate committee hearings conducted during the period for which remote voting is permitted shall be presided over by a chair who is present in the Capitol and shall have a quorum of the committee members in the Capitol. Senator Atkins did note as part of her announcement that remote voting on the Senate Floor “does remain an option for the Senate depending on how conditions develop.” She also noted that the “Senate and Assembly are taking different approaches.”