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House lawmakers agree secure remote voting is possible, but implementation still divides

Experts all agree it would be safe, but diverge on side effects

House lawmakers agreed Friday that the chamber could implement a comprehensive and secure electronic remote voting system, but divisions remain over whether such a move, even in the midst of a global health crisis, is prudent.

The House Administration Committee heard from the House clerk, a pioneering former speaker and a roster of academics and business leaders on the technological feasibility of electronic remote voting and keeping it safe from hackers and other bad actors aiming to sow distrust in government.

“It is critical that we ensure complete confidence — both contemporaneously and historically — of the Members and the public in the way House votes are recorded,” Clerk of the House Cheryl L. Johnson told the committee.

Johnson pledged that her office, as it has done since its inception in 1789, will support the legislative functions of the House, no matter how it evolves.

“However the House decides to proceed on how it conducts voting, our office will be prepared to advise on the associated costs, benefits and challenges, and we will be prepared to implement whatever decisions it makes to ensure the continuity of this irreplaceable institution,” Johnson said.

In a historic move, the House made a temporary change to the chamber’s rules to allow for a proxy voting period, first implemented on May 20, for 45 days. It allows lawmakers who do not feel comfortable traveling to Washington because of the pandemic to stay home and still participate in floor votes and committee meetings. It has since been extended through Aug. 18.

The proxy voting system is relatively low-tech compared to proposals for apps and secure networks that lawmakers heard about Friday. The key element of the existing proxy system is a signed letter to the House clerk naming a member’s proxy designee.

Johnson pointed to around-the-clock work it took for her office to develop a new electronic system — dubbed the eHopper — for filing legislative measures and extensions of remarks in the face of the coronavirus. The clerk’s office also implemented, on a tight turnaround time, the move to allow proxy votes, including posting letters of proxy designations on the clerk’s website.

“As with the eHopper, our staff worked long and hard to ensure a successful implementation. To date, we have conducted 29 votes with proxies without incident,” Johnson said.

No one at the hearing seemed to doubt whether the House clerk was capable. Even the main critic of any move toward remote voting, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, said his doubts didn’t extend to the clerk.

“I have no doubt that if the House decides it’s wise, that you can develop a very solid system,” he said. “And I concur with the clerk, Cheryl Johnson, that she could easily develop and guarantee the integrity of that kind of a system.”

Gingrich, who served as speaker from 1995 to 1999, said a shift to remote voting would lead to three things: a concentration of power by leadership, the loss of relationships among rank-and-file lawmakers and a degradation of the quality of legislation produced by a decentralized legislature.

“I think when everybody else is out of town, the speaker and their staff become virtually a dictatorship,” he said. “They have all the power, they have all the ability to deal with the executive branch, to deal with the Senate, and it puts the average member at an enormous disadvantage.”

Gingrich acknowledged that part of his legacy was a significant concentration of power in the speaker’s office. He flexed his power over committees, abandoning the precedent of seniority and skipped over experienced members to appoint his own chairmen and slashed panel staffs, for example. But he warned that the speaker’s power is especially magnified when members aren’t mingling and sharing ideas among themselves that could potentially challenge the speaker.

Gingrich pointed to the elimination of proxy voting in committees under his leadership, saying the process left too much power with chairmen and diluted the power of rank-and-file members.

His distaste for proxy voting has not diminished in the more than 20 years since he gave up the speaker’s gavel. Gingrich echoed criticisms of remote and proxy voting aired by the current GOP leadership, shaming lawmakers whom he called cowards for not participating in person during the pandemic and questioning why “the political class” won’t show up to work.

“I sense that we are beginning to be the land of the timid and the home of the fearful,” he said.

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Despite his strong opposition to remote voting, Gingrich had nothing but praise for the committee’s work Friday.

“I think for the purpose you were assigned, to ascertain whether or not it is technically doable, this was a superb hearing and makes me proud to once again to be briefly part of the House Administration Committee,” he said, high praise from a former member of the panel.

Technological feasibility

Experts from academia and the private sector made suggestions for elements essential to a secure remote voting system for the House, but made clear that they were not recommending remote voting itself, just the technology and systems to make it possible.

One key element of voting in the House that separates this scenario from discussions of remote or electronic voting for elections is the inherent transparency of lawmakers declaring their positions.

“There are indeed suitable secure voting technologies available,” said Ronald L. Rivest, an institute professor at MIT. “The important reason why that is true is that House votes are not secret. Voting in the House is not based on secret ballots. That makes all the difference, as manipulation or alteration of votes can be detected and corrected.”

Whether on an app, a desktop computer, a videoconferencing system or other technological methods, witnesses agreed that while risks exist, a layered approach using both digital and human safeguards could make this type of voting safe and secure.

“We can’t for a minute believe that adversaries would not also try to interfere in congressional voting. For that reason, it is imperative that the House implement the highest degree of security possible, and consider backup options,” said Jon Green, vice president and chief security technologist at Aruba Networks. “Fortunately, a model already exists for highly secure remote access; Congress does not have to go first.”

Green’s suggestions included ensuring that the networks used are up to standards set by the National Security Agency, multifactor authentication and dedicated devices for lawmakers to use for voting.

Some solutions presented by witnesses were so simple, lawmakers and staff are already qualified to do them, including a manual system of vote verification run by humans.

“This could be as simple as monitoring the vote on C-SPAN or listening to a conference call line as voting results are read aloud,” Green said.

If lawmakers or staff notice that an intended vote position was incorrect or cannot access the system, a backup process would need to be available, said Avi Rubin, professor and technical director at the the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute.

“The next step would be to alert somebody and to have a mechanism in place in advance that would make it easy to alert someone saying, ‘I’m trying to vote, and my vote has not been successful, and then have a procedure for getting that vote in some other way,” Rubin said.

Lawmakers asked questions about biometric verification, technology basic enough for even the Luddites in Congress to use, and “what ifs” centered on not having internet access or attempts to keep specific members from voting.

The technologists and academics each assured the panel that whatever the threats any congressional system may face — while serious and assured — a thoughtfully developed system with built-in backup solutions would be able to allow the House to vote securely when lawmakers are spread across the country.

House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren pointed out that some of the challenges and mishaps that have come up in remote committee proceedings aren’t so different from in-person challenges.

“I have missed votes, not because of a denial-of-service attack but because United Airlines took off late and I didn’t make it in time to go to the House floor,” the California Democrat said.

Policy directors of both Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network made a similar point in a letter sent to the House Administration panel ahead of Friday’s hearing, urging the development of remote voting capabilities, even if they are not used outside of emergency circumstances.

Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress and Zach Graves of the Lincoln Network wrote that when members are unable to participate in a remote House proceeding because of an issue with their internet connection, the situation is not novel nor is it representative of the remote setting.

“This happens in person, too, when a member misses a flight or their car breaks down. Few members have a perfect voting record,” Schuman and Graves wrote. Their two groups frequently advocate the use of technology to improve government performance.

The authors praised Gingrich for a wave of digitization that transformed House operations under his leadership, including the creation of the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, adoption of the House Information Systems Program Plan and the Computer and Information Services Working Group.

But they also placed blame for what they see as a severely diminished capacity of the House on changes Gingrich implemented.

“Gringrich’s approach to governance greatly undermined Congress as an institution. It resulted in the gross centralization of power in the Speakership, the evisceration of its committee and personal offices, and the undermining of its support offices and agencies,” they wrote. “The House post-Gingrich is less deliberative, more polarized, and has significantly less capacity to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities of legislation, oversight, and constituent services.”

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