On April 15, 2020

Voting goes digital

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

The Legislature’s priority focus during this unusual time is providing relief to Vermonters who face serious life challenges as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. As we are all discovering, a surprising number of the needs of everyday life are affected by having to “stay safe, stay home.”  From reducing people’s economic burdens, to helping people stay in their homes, sign wills, notarize documents, consult with health care providers remotely, and create flexibility for our towns, to maintaining the financial viability of our emergency responders and to extending licensing renewals – there are countless ways “business as usual” needs a legislative change to protect Vermonters during this pandemic. In order to carry this out, however, we have needed to adapt our own rules and procedures to the requirements of social distancing.

During the COVID crisis, many of us are now using remote meeting technology for our activities – business, family visits, even religious services happen through video conferencing. Now the Legislature has joined the club. For weeks the Vermont Legislature’s committees have been meeting remotely, and almost daily the full Senate has had video calls to discuss strategies and exchange information.

Now we’ve added remote voting to the mix.

It seemed quite natural to meet as an entire Senate by Zoom on Friday, April 10. But in fact it was a legislative “first” – and of some historic significance. While there have been unusual circumstances such as wars and natural disasters that have tested the Senate rules which require us to meet and vote in person, in the

Statehouse, this was the first time in over 200 years that one of the Vermont’s legislative bodies debated bills and voted remotely.

Sixteen of us had gathered in person in the Statehouse on the Wednesday before this historic session to pass a Senate Resolution which temporarily amends Senate Rules 10A and 32A authorizing the Senate to “participate, debate, deliberate and vote” remotely during a declared emergency by the Governor. To vote remotely we need to use both audio and video. The format authorized by the Rules Committee also enables the public to have access to our proceedings in a manner consistent with the Vermont constitution. After a dress rehearsal on Thursday afternoon, our first live, remote Session on Friday went seamlessly.

The Senate passed four bills during its remote session on Friday. The first, a Judiciary bill, S.114, adapts certain judicial proceedings to the needs of this emergency period, including emergency landlord/tenant hearings, powers of attorney and deeds being executed remotely, and criminal defendants appearing via video conferencing in court. The second, S.182, addresses the challenges our emergency medical and public safety services are facing in this crisis (financial, supplies and personnel), and provides for the temporary extension of plumber and electrician licenses. The third bill, S. 333, creates a state-wide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during this emergency period. It allows for certain emergency eviction hearings if there is a serious threat to the health and safety of other tenants. And the last bill passed on Friday, H.741, allows for criminal background checks to be done on contractors’ employees who are working on state owned or leased buildings.

I appreciate hearing from you. I can be reached by email:  aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at 457-4627. For more information, visit legislature.vermont.gov.

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