Proxy voting turns one: The past, present, and future of remote voting in the House

A general view of the U.S. Capitol Building at sunrise, in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 30, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this week President Biden gave his first address to Congress, as COVID-19 cases exponentially surge to unseen levels in India and confirmed case counts in America hovering above 50,000 daily. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)No Use Germany.

On Monday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) once again extended the “covered period” for proxy voting in the House of Representatives, this time through July 3. It’s been just over a year since the House instituted proxy voting in response to the health risks of gathering in person during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than having to travel to Washington, D.C. to cast votes in person, members can instead designate a colleague to record their votes for them, subject to direct instructions. As the House is under pressure to resume more of its pre-pandemic operations, it’s worth taking stock of the proxy voting experience so far and considering what it tells us about innovations the House might keep going forward.

Importantly, some legislators are still availing themselves of the opportunity to vote by proxy even as more representatives and selected members of their staffs have been vaccinated. As of May 11, there were 51 active proxies in the House—roughly the same number as just before the November 2020 elections (indicated by the yellow line in figure below). As the figure illustrates, the number of active proxies has fluctuated over time, topping 100 twice. Both spikes correlate with especially high COVID rates in the U.S., but also may have been affected in 2020 by retiring members choosing not to return to Washington following the election, and in 2021 by representatives concerned for their own safety shortly following the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

Line graph showing proxy voting in 116th and 117th Congresses.

There also appear to be important differences in how members have made use of proxy voting—both within and between the 116th and 117th Congresses. As we see in the first figure below, in 2020, two common approaches to proxy voting were to use it for just a few days (47 members had active proxies for three or fewer days) or for essentially all votes after May 2020. In 2021, however, the former approach has been more common, as seen in the second figure. Only 15 members have used proxy voting for 29 days or more in the 117th Congress, and the majority have voted by proxy on six or fewer days.

At present, during the speaker’s declaration of a “public health emergency,” members are not required to provide a reason for exercising their ability to vote by proxy other than attesting that it is “due to the public health emergency.” But as several specific examples of members voting by proxy illustrate, there may be reasons for the chamber to continue some sort of remote participation—figuring out what that should look like, however, requires an honest consideration of the tradeoffs.

There are several individuals who have used proxy voting to cast votes because of life circumstances that kept them away from Washington—situations that, in the absence of proxy voting, would have required extreme steps to vote or would have involved missing votes entirely. Take, for example, the birth of child. In 2018 and 2019, respectively, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Representative Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) made news for bringing their newborns with them to vote because Congress lacked a mechanism for them to vote remotely while on maternity leave. Contrast that with Colin Allred (D-Tex.), who has cast 36 votes by proxy since announcing on March 29 that he would be taking paternity leave following the birth of his second child. (Allred also took paternity leave after the birth of his first child in 2019, missing 20 votes to do so.)

Similarly, health issues that prevent members from being present on the floor have long been a cause of member absences. Since proxy voting has been in place, however, members facing long-term health challenges, like Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who voted by proxy for approximately 10 months before his death in April 2021, have been able to participate from afar. Members facing short-term health issues, like Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), who is currently voting by proxy after recovering from emergency eye surgery in April, have also been able to vote while recovery prevents them from traveling.

Alongside these uses of proxy voting as a workplace accommodation are several examples where members of both parties cast votes by proxy but were reported to be engaging in other activities. In the regular course of congressional business, members often miss votes for a wide range of reasons, but not all kinds of votes are skipped with equal frequency. Votes taken under suspension of the rules, which require at least a two-thirds majority to pass, tend to be less controversial—and have, on average, a slightly higher absence rate. In the portion of the 116th Congress prior to the implementation of proxy voting, for example, an average of 21 members missed a suspension vote, as compared to 17 members for non-suspension votes.

The fact that members might be willing to simply miss certain kinds of votes when voting requires physical presence has important consequences for how we think about proxy voting going forward. Indeed, when we look at changes in the number of absences on suspension votes during the proxy voting period by party, an interesting pattern emerges. Democrats—who have heartily embraced proxy voting—have seen a 58% decrease in absences from suspension votes, while Republicans—who largely rejected the process before early 2021—had a 79% increase in absences on the same votes.[1] This suggests that Democrats, at least in some cases, are using the procedure to cast votes they would otherwise miss while Republicans, weighing the costs and benefits of appearing in person during a pandemic for uncontroversial votes, choose to miss the votes entirely.

As the House considers what, if any, of its COVID-19 adaptations it intends to keep going forward, there is room for a serious conversation about whether members should be able to cast votes they would otherwise miss—a discussion that should include consideration of the circumstances under which casting a vote without being physically present should be permitted and whether the tactic should be limited to certain types of votes. But given how proxy voting has been framed—House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) described it as “a loophole that allows [Democrats] to keep getting paid, even if they don’t show up for work”—having that kind of substantive debate is likely to be challenging.

[1] Crespin, Michael H. and David Rohde. [2021] Political Institutions and Public Choice (PIPC) Roll-Call Database. Retrieved from Data collected by PIPC was used to compare the 116th pre-proxy voting (January 2019 – May 2020) to post-proxy voting (May 2020 – April 2021).

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