State Action to Enable Remote Legislative Activity

By Sierra Hatfield, CSG policy analyst and Aja Croteau, CSG operations manager

Key Insights

With guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control warning against mass gatherings, multiple states are grappling with how to continue their legislative sessions. Many states have adjourned or postponed meetings and all are working to ensure that essential government operations continue with transparency while protecting the health and safety of lawmakers. To address these circumstances brought on by the public health emergency, some states are looking to teleconferencing and remote session participation.

Many states face a number of restrictions when considering remote sessions, from state constitutions, statutes, and legislative rules. Some state constitutions require all sessions to be held in the seat of government, and others include provisions that explicitly require members to be physically present to vote. While states won’t have the time and resources available during the public health emergency to make constitutional changes, the events surrounding COVID-19 give leaders an opportunity to re-examine their state’s laws and determine if they match a globalized world and a changing workforce.

State statutes and legislative rules have also created barriers for states looking to allow remote session participation, but some states have already found ways to overcome these challenges. The Utah House of Representatives recently suspended House Rule 14 C so members can cast votes through technological means. Other states, such as California and New York, have also been able to suspend rules to facilitate government operations during the public health emergency.

Provisions around member requirements aren’t the only issue when determining the legality of remote sessions. State legislative sessions are often subject to a number of open meeting laws and requirements, and leaders will need to make sure that sessions are still available to the public. While many states already broadcast their sessions live on television or even social media, these systems are often set up to record regular meeting spaces and integrating public streaming with live teleconferencing can be a serious challenge.

Beyond the legal authority to change how legislatures conduct business, states pursuing these options have had to navigate the logistical challenges of mass teleconferencing and other means of electronic participation. While there are numerous telecommunication systems out there, few were built to handle meetings the size of a state legislative body, and none of them were designed to function during these times of peak internet utilization, as many across the country work from home. Finding a system with enough capacity to handle a legislative session will be no small task.

To further complicate setting up virtual sessions, the IT infrastructure for state legislatures can vary by state and by service. Some state legislatures have their own IT authority, separate from the one that serves the executive branch. Other states have their own authority but still receive some services, such as telephone systems, through the executive branch IT department. Across IT authorities, most states also have existing contracts with telecommunication and IT vendors, and not all of these contracts will include systems equipped for these meetings. States looking to implement teleconferencing or other means of remote participation will need to work closely with their IT staff to ensure that systems run smoothly, are in line with existing state technology infrastructure, and avoid threats related to cybersecurity.

One option for state legislatures to consider is to reach out to their State Chief Information Officers, who generally provide services to state executive branches. While legislative bodies are still new to teleconferencing, executive and judicial branches in some states have been using these technologies for years. Collaboration across branches of government will help implement strong systems of communication and ensure timely action during this time of emergency.

Ultimately, state legislators will need to work very closely with other state leaders to ensure that teleconferencing and remote participation works smoothly and within the law. While many have constitutional authority to make necessary changes during times of emergency, cooperation and collaboration are crucial to ensuring that state resources aren’t stretched beyond capacity and that the health and safety of all citizens are protected.

Trends by State

The following table summarizes the forms of remote participation authorized within each state listed in this report.

StateUndecidedBy ProxyBy Tele-meansBy VideoBy Other Electronic Means
Arizonax
Arkansasx
Californiaxx
Coloradox
Connecticutx
D.C.x
Delawarexx
Georgiax
Guam
Hawaiixxx
Illinoisx
Iowax
Kentuckyxxx
Louisianaxx
Massachusettsxxx
Minnesotax
Nebraskax
New Jerseyx
New Mexicoxx
New Yorkxx
North Carolinaxxx
North Dakotaxx
Oklahomax
Oregonx
Pennsylvaniax
Rhode Islandx
South Dakotax
Utahx
Vermontx
Virgin Islandsx
Wisconsinx
Wyomingx

Action Steps for States

  1. States interested in conducting legislative sessions through teleconferencing or other remote means should first determine if state laws and legislative rules permit such options. When doing this, states should examine the following for provisions around legislative sessions as well as state open meeting requirements:
  2. State Statutes
  3. State Constitutions
  4. House and Senate rules
  • Once legal authority is assured, states will need to determine what procedures for remote participation best meet the needs of their legislature. So far, a few options have been considered by states such as:
  • Utilizing multiple rooms in capitol buildings to bring lawmakers to the seat of government in-person but spreading out to allow for the CDC 6ft social distancing recommendation. Members in rooms other than the legislative floor submit votes electronically.
  • Members submit their votes electronically to their party leaders, who convene in-person at the seat of government for formal consideration of legislation.
  • Full video conferencing for session, with all members joining remotely via a secure connection.
  • When procedures have been decided, state leaders will need to work closely with their existing IT infrastructure to set up the logistics of their remote session. Most state legislatures have their own IT authorities who handle existing communication systems, and leaders should work with these entities to ensure that all telecommunication or other electronic systems are secure and run smoothly.

While legislative bodies are new to mass telecommunication, executive and judicial branches in some states have used these technologies for years. State legislatures and their IT services are encouraged to reach out and work with other state IT officials, such as State Chief Information Officers and State Technology directors, to leverage existing infrastructure and ensure that these processes can be set up quickly.

State by State Legislative Action

Arizona

Adjourned sine die May 26.

Moving toward remote session participation.

Legal Authority

  • House approved MIS005 suspending House Rule 14 C and allowing votes to be cast by technological means.
  • Ariz. Const. Art. 4, Part 2, Sec. 25 allows the legislature to “adopt such other measures as may be necessary and proper for ensuring the continuity of governmental operations.”

Arkansas

Adjourned sine die April 24.  Special session March 26-28 on budget.

Moving toward remote session participation.

  • Initial consideration was a mixed approach- capping the number of legislators on the floor, practicing social distancing, and having some legislators vote remotely. (Source: TalkBusiness)

Legal Authority

California

Regular session in recess.

Moving toward remote session participation.

Legal Authority

  • Senate Resolution 86 allows the Senate President pro Tempore to authorize remote session participation
  • The California constitution has provisions for the legislature to make changes in response to “war-caused or enemy-caused disaster” but does not have provisions beyond that. (Source: Cal. Const. Art.  4, Sec. 21.)

Colorado

Adjourned sine die June 15. 

Moving toward remote session participation.

Legal Authority

  • Colo. Const. Art. 8, Sec. 3 allows the seat of government to be moved.
  • SR20 and HR20 adopts Joint Rule 44, which sets out procedure during a state of emergency
  • The Colorado House and Senate adopted HR1002 and SR5, respectively, authorizing regulations for remote participation in legislative proceedings.

Connecticut

Adjourned sine die May 6.

Moving toward remote session participation.

Legal Authority

  • House Joint Resolution No. 28 “During a declaration of a public health emergency, members may vote at meetings by telephone or other means of voice communication.”
  • Conn. Const. Art. 3, Sec. 2. allows the Governor to convene the General Assembly outside of Hartford in the case of special emergency.

Delaware

Special session June 1-November 3, currently in recess.  Both the House and Senate met virtually on 5/17/2020.. 

Legal Authority

  • Del. Conn. § 5, Article II and § 1, Article XVII allows the legislature to meet and sit elsewhere “in periods of emergency resulting from enemy attack, terrorism, disease, accident, or other natural or man-made disaster.”
  • HCR85 adopts rules for conducting virtual meetings

Georgia

Adjourned sine die June 26.  Special session March 16

Moving toward remote session participation.

Legal Authority

  • According to HR1601, Georgia Code Sections 38-3-52 and 38-3-53 allow the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate to, by joint agreement, order the discontinuation of the schedule for meetings provided by [HR 1601] and provide for reconvening the House and the Senate at such temporary location or locations.
  • HR1507 and HR1601 amends the rules for and allows virtual meetings of the legislature.

Guam

Currently in regular session.

Considering remote session participation.

  • House Speaker Tina Muña Barnes has expressed interest in a virtual session. (Source: NCSL)

Legal Authority

  • R323 temporarily authorizes remote committee meetings and public hearings.

Hawaii

Adjourned sine die July 10.

Moving toward remote participation.

Legal Authority

Illinois

Regular session adjourned May 24.  Special session May 20-November 17. 

Considering remote participation.

Legal Authority

  • SR1201 allows the President of the Senate to establish a process for Senators and members of the public to participate remotely in hearings for standing committees, special committees, subcommittees or special subcommittees, and service committees.

Iowa

Adjourned sine die June 14.

Considering remote session participation.

  • State Representative Steve King has expressed support of the idea of a virtual session. (Source: News/Talk 1540 KXEL)

Legal Authority

  • Iowa Constitution Art. 3, Sec. 2 allows the governor to convene the legislature outside of the seat of government “in times of pestilence or public danger.” (Source: CSG Midwestern Legislative Service Agency/Research Directors Group Survey)
  • Iowa Constitution Art. 3, Sec. 13 requires legislative sessions be open to the public. (Source: CSG Midwestern Legislative Service Agency/Research Directors Group Survey)
  • Senate Rules 39 and 40 require all committee meetings and subcommittee meetings to be open to the public. (Source: CSG Midwestern Legislative Service Agency/Research Directors Group Survey)
  • House Rule 52 requires standing committee meetings to be open to the public. (Source: CSG Midwestern Legislative Service Agency/Research Directors Group Survey)

Kentucky

Adjourned sine die April 15.

Moving toward remote participation.

Legal Authority

  • House Rule 68A was created to allow alternative voting at any time for the House
  • HR133 allows alternative voting where a caucus designee is permitted to cast votes on behalf of members

Louisiana

Adjourned sine die June 1. Special session June 1-30 on Budget.

Moving toward remote participation.

Legal Authority

  • SR45 amends Senate rules to permit members to vote via video or other electronic means during a declared emergency.

Massachusetts

In regular session.

Moving toward remote session participation.

  • Senate President Karen Spilka has states that the legislature is exploring options including livestreaming of informal sessions and allowing remote participation for lawmakers. (Source: WBUR News)

Legal Authority

Minnesota

Adjourned sine die May 17. Special sessions June 12-20 and July 13-August 13, the latter currently in recess.

Moving toward remote participation.

Legal Authority

  • M.S. 3.055 allows meetings to be conducted via videoconferencing as long as one member is physically present at the regular meeting location. The statute does use unusual language, “interactive TV.”
  • House Rule 10.01 may allow member debates and voting to occur via distanced voting, remote electronic voting, or voting by other means.
  • Senate Report 229 allows Senate committee and subcommittee meetings to be held using alternative means.

Nebraska

Currently in recess.

Considering remote session participation.

  • State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks is calling for a virtual session, asserts that existing state supreme court ruling and state constitution support the legality of this option. (Source: Scottsbluff Star Herald)

Legal Authority

  • The Nebraska constitution has provisions for “emergencies due to enemy attack” but none beyond that. (Source: Neb. Const. Art. 3, Sec. 29.)

New Jersey

Assembly convened via teleconference March 25. Assembly and Senate scheduled quorum April 9. Senate remote voting session April 13.

  • Former Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll claimed that NJ A3850 is against the state constitution. (Source: New Jersey Globe)

Legal Authority

  • A3850 allows the state legislature and other public bodies to cast votes electronically and remotely during periods of emergency.
  • AB3852 allows the conduction of State business and legislative sessions outside of Trenton during periods of emergency, and also allows the Legislature to use any technology or electronic means to carry out that business
  • The New Jersey constitution has provisions for “disasters caused by enemy attack” but none beyond that. (Source: N.J. Const. Art.  4, Sec. 6, Pgh 4.)

New Mexico

Adjourned sine die February 20.  Special session June 18-22. 

Moving toward remote session participation.

  • House committee debate on remote voting delayed due to technical difficulties (Source: NCSL)
  • State Supreme Court rules that legislature can hold special session with virtual-only public attendance (Source: NCSL)

Legal Authority

  • House Rule 24-1 and Senate Rule 24-1 allow changes to be made to the rules by a two-thirds majority vote of members
  • HR1 and SR1 allow remote, electronic or telephonic voting

New York

Currently in recess. Convened virtually in late May.

  • AR854, AB3850, and SR3108 adopts special temporary procedures (i.e. remote participation) during a state or national emergency

Legal Authority

  • N.Y. Const. Art. 3, Sec. 25. allows the legislature to adopt measures to ensure continuity of governmental operations during emergencies/disasters.

North Carolina

Currently in recess.

Moving toward remote participation.

Legal Authority

North Dakota

Not in session in 2020. Some committee meetings have been canceled.

Planning to allow optional remote participation for meetings

  • The 16-member Legislative Management, which guides the Legislature’s interim work, meets at 9:30 a.m. in the Senate chamber. The 42-member Budget Section, which makes certain budget decisions between legislative sessions, meets at 10:30 a.m. in the same place. Lawmakers of either committee may be present via telecommunications. (Source: The Bismarck Tribune)
  • Committee chairpersons will work with House Majority Leader Pollert to determine the plan for other scheduled meetings. Legislative Council Director John Bjornson said that this week’s meetings will be good tests for the teleconferencing process. (Source: The Bismarck Tribune)

Legal Authority

Oklahoma

Adjourned sine die May 29. Special session April 6-May 30.  Not considering remote participation by technology, but does allow votes by proxy.

Legislative Authority

  • Section 30 of Article V of the Oklahoma Constitution states that “each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members, and a majority of each shall constitute a quorum to do business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner and under such penalty as each House may provide.”
  • HR 1032 adopts the ability of the House to vote by proxy
  • SR17 suspends certain Senate rules to aid in the legislature’s activities during the public health pandemic

Oregon
Adjourned sine die March 8.  Special session June 24-26. 

Held virtual committee hearings to discuss a special session. (Source: NCSL webinar 3/25)

Legal Authority

  • Or. Const. Art. 10-A. allows the legislature to convene outside of the capitol in case of a catastrophic disaster and allows participation by electronic or other means.

Pennsylvania

Currently in recess.

  • House and Senate convened floor sessions using remote participation and voting week of March 23.
  • UPDATE 4/10: Have used Zoom for teleconferencing. Still working out system for voting: the majority is tallying votes on paper and scanning them in, while the minority is using an online tool to keep track. (Source: FiveThirtyEight)
  • Held their first remote committee meeting on 3/23. (Source: The Morning Call)
  • Lawmakers submit votes to their party leaders, who then come to the capitol for formal consideration of legislation. (Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Rule also allows legislation to move between the two chambers and to the governor’s desk in 3 hours, as opposed to several days. (Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Legal Authority

Rhode Island

Currently in regular session.

Considering remote session participation

  • Legislative legal staff are exploring the possibility of remote sessions but so far have constitutional concerns. (Source: WPRI News)
  • Idea has support from House and Senate Republicans but Majority is not on board as of 3/31. (Source: Providence Journal)

Legal Authority

South Dakota

Adjourned sine die March 30.

Planning for remote session participation.

  • The South Dakota Legislature will meet via teleconference for the final scheduled day of this year’s legislative session. (Source: AP News)
  • The legislature convened on March 30th, “mostly through electronic means.” (Source: Capital Journal)
  • Special announcements and arrangements were made to allow an electronic Veto Day

Legal Authority

  • South Dakota statute 1-25-1.5 allows any official meeting to be conducted by teleconference.
  • S.D. Const. Art.  3, Sec. 29. Has provisions for emergencies from enemy attack.
  • The South Dakota Constitution requires meetings of the House, Senate, and “each committee of the whole” to be open to the public. (Source: CSG Midwestern Legislative Service Agency/Research Directors Group Survey)

Utah
Adjourned sine die March 12.  Special sessions April 16-23, 23, and June 18.

Planning for remote session participation.

Legal Authority

Vermont

Currently in recess.

Moving toward remote participation.

Legislative Authority

  • SR10SR11SJR48HR17 and HR18 all relate to adopting emergency rules, however HR18 specifically relates to remote participation during the current declared public health emergency

Wisconsin

Currently in recess.  Special sessions on April 4 and April 7-8. Has held a remote session.

  • On Tuesday, March 24th two state senators and 11 stand-ins met for a dress rehearsal of a virtual legislative session. Some attendees attended in person spaced 6 feet apart, and others attended via teleconference. (Source: Wisconsin State Journal)

Legal Authority

Wyoming

Adjourned sine die March 12.  Special session May 15-16.

Not considering full move to remote participation.

Legislative Authority

  • Joint Rules 23-1(o) explains how members who attend and vote on legislative items remotely will be counted and allowed to do so

District of Columbia

In regular session.  No suspension or postponement of the legislative session has been announced.

Legislative Authority

  • B 23-718, also known as the COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020, provides emergency authority to the Executive and to address needs of D.C. residents and business during the public health emergency

Virgin Islands

In regular session.

Moving toward remote participation.

Legislative Authority

  • No. 33-20-004 allows Senators and essential staff to attend and participate in sessions remotely