How Congress Can Vote Remotely During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has caused unprecedented change to every facet of our lives. Millions of Americans are working remotely, performing the essential functions of their jobs away from their workplaces, often at home. But right now members of Congress can’t perform some of the key functions of their job because they are back in their home states and districts, unable to cast votes, debate or hold remote hearings.

That is not acceptable, in our view. Congress must continue to function during national crises, even if we cannot meet in person for weeks or months at a time.

An essential part of the Senate’s constitutional function, no matter the circumstances, is for senators to cast votes on legislation. We propose allowing remote voting during emergencies on a temporary basis. In times like these, that means updating Senate tradition so senators can follow the guidance of medical experts and adhere to strict social distancing measures. We are at the point where remote voting may be critical for the Senate to be able to govern on behalf of the American people and help lead our country through this crisis.

While there are logistical challenges involved, the technology exists for the Senate to adopt a secure remote voting system. Our specific proposal would authorize the Senate’s technology leadership — the Senate sergeant-at-arms — to determine the specifics of a remote voting system. There are three security principles that any such system should follow.

First, senators must authenticate their identity before casting a remote vote. There are a number of practices that are already available, such as biometrics or supplementing passwords with a one-time generated code, perhaps the most common form of two-factor authentication.

Second, while a senator’s identity must be authenticated before the vote, a senator’s vote must be verified after the vote, to prove that their decision was actually theirs. Since votes are public, one option is to pair senators so that they can check in with their colleagues and make sure their vote is correct. By allowing a layover period after all the senators have voted, we can be sure to give them time to “check their work” and ensure the correct outcome. Another option is to conduct votes over secure video conference so that votes can be verified by each senator’s face and voice.

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Finally, everything must be encrypted. Millions of Americans already use end-to-end encryption apps to protect their text messages and calls. The Senate should consider evaluating off-the-shelf solutions to protect the integrity of remote votes.

We understand that some have concerns about making such a fundamental change to the way the Senate operates — it is an institution built on tradition, and we agree that those traditions should be respected. But this is an extraordinary time. Today, we face a pandemic. Tomorrow, there could be a new national crisis, preventing members from convening safely.

We believe the security solutions necessary to carry out remote voting are already available. The legislative branch should have the ability to perform its most critical functions remotely during emergencies. The people’s voice should be heard through Congress, no matter the crisis.

Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, and Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, are senators. Jason Matheny is the director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.

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