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Voting by Remote Control Is a Recipe for Voter’s Remorse

At first blush, one of the first measures introduced by one of this year’s youngest, tech-savvy House freshmen sounds as virtuous as it does innovative.

Yet four weeks after California Democrat Eric Swalwell unveiled his proposal, and two weeks after the Silicon Valley-area representative launched a concerted search for co-sponsors, only three other members have signed on.

There can be only one of two reasons for this:

  1. His idea is so cutting-edge that his colleagues can’t fully comprehend how profoundly and positively transformative it would be, or
  2. It’s so misguided that it’s already been effectively discounted as a ridiculous idea that could actually do harm to our democracy.

The core of Swalwell’s plan is to permit House members to cast some of their ballots from anywhere in the world on bills as they are being debated in the House chamber. Call it remote “yeas” and “nays.”

Swalwell wants the House clerk to create a secure, Web-based voting application to replace the plastic cards members now insert into teller machines on the floor. He would also allow members to use teleconferencing or Internet connections to make committee quorum calls and question witnesses at hearings.

The 32-year-old former prosecutor says he often used Facebook and MySpace to locate witnesses. He argues passionately that remote voting is an appropriate way for Congress to harness technology in the pursuit of a more effective democracy. If nothing else, it would help lawmakers spend even more time in their districts, with their political eyes on their constituents and their policymaking ears to the ground.

He’s dubbed his House rules changes the MOBILE resolution, the acronym standing for Members Operating to Be Innovative and Link Everyone.

The proposal is absolutely in Swalwell’s enlightened self-interest. As the new congressman for a swatch of high-tech manufacturing and cutting-edge telecommunications businesses just above the heart of Silicon Valley, he sees himself as an apt spokesman for the 30 other members of Congress who are younger than 40 and came of age during the digital revolution.

“It’s incumbent upon me to try and upgrade the institution and to carry that flag as the congressman for innovation” he said in an interview with my colleague Chris White for the just-released 17th edition of “Politics in America,” CQ Roll Call’s collection of biographical profiles of every member of Congress.

“Not just in what innovation policies do to create jobs for my constituents,” he said, “but also what innovation can do to help us communicate with our constituents.”

Of course, remote voting would also make the logistics of congressional life easier for him — and for each of his co-sponsors (fellow California Democratic freshman Alan Lowenthal and Republicans Steve Pearce of rural New Mexico and Cynthia M. Lummis of Wyoming). Cross-country flights and weekend red-eyes are the bane of their Washington commute.

But the people in charge of the Capitol have decided, more often than not, that the congressional culture need not emulate the culture of business.

And that seems to be the House’s passive but collective judgment in this case: While 21st-century technological advancements and social-media outlets are leading corporations to reconfigure their businesses all the time, one of the essential qualities of the federal legislature since its 18th-century beginnings had best be left alone.

Time and again, when members are asked for their diagnoses of the twin Capitol scourges of partisanship and gridlock, they mention their lack of personal connectedness to other members. It falls right up there on the list next to the fundraising treadmill and the gerrymandering of so many seats to be safe for one party or the other.

Two of the big innovations that revolutionized business at the end of the 20th century — jets traveling 500 miles an hour and the hub-and-spoke airline scheduling system — are widely seen as having downgraded the congressional experience. All those quick and convenient flights made keeping close to constituents as convenient as it was exhausting.

They also made it mandatory for members to have nothing to do with their Capitol compatriots between the last vote in one week and the first vote in the next. Less time playing cards and knocking back beers makes for less collegiality in committee and on the floor.

Initially, at least, Swalwell would allow remote voting only on legislation considered under “suspension of the rules,” the process used for bills of little controversy. They are passed with nominal debate and no amendments, so long as they garner a two-thirds majority.

But that change alone would effectively reduce the House’s typical Washington workweek from three days to two, since the leadership schedules those “suspenders” mainly to make sure members come back in time to attend a full roster of hearings, markups and meetings with lobbyists and fundraisers.

Beyond that lies a more-than-theoretical fear that disassociating House floor votes from the House floor would spark a revival of absenteeism, which has come close to disappearing in the past two decades. (The median participation rate at House roll calls was just 85 percent in the 1960s but has been 95 percent since the 1990s.)

What’s more worrisome, a House where members weren’t expected to show up in person could become a forum for “ghost voting.” No member has been punished for allowing someone else to cast a vote on his behalf since 1987, when Democrat Austin Murphy of Pennsylvania was reprimanded for that and several other ethical lapses.

The money quote from the House Ethics Committee report in the Murphy case is an essential verity that forms a bridge from the parchment past to the digital future: “Nothing is more sacred to the democratic process than each person casting his own vote.”