Convenience, backlash mix as candidates vote by proxy in House
Process begun for pandemic safety used by some to campaign at home
Corrected Oct. 5 | Proxy voting has been both a blessing and a curse for House members on the campaign trail this season.
Members have used the practice to their advantage, jetting off to make in-person appearances on the campaign trail. But they have also faced backlash, with opponents accusing them of voting from their “pajamas” or “phoning it in.”
Renewed several times, proxy voting was first authorized in May 2020 to help protect House members from COVID-19. Lawmakers must first sign a letter attesting they are “unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.” After that, they can designate a colleague to announce their votes on the floor without needing to be in Washington at all.
They may swear their absences were caused by the pandemic, but throughout 2022, data shows proxy voting peaked in the week that a member's primary election was held. The 21 percent rate of proxy voting in those weeks was nearly double the weekly average of 11 percent for the 117th Congress overall, CQ Roll Call found.
Challengers have used such votes as fodder for attacks, accusing prime offenders of neglecting their duties in Washington. Yet even infrequent proxy voters got some heat. Here’s a look at how proxy voting became a tricky subject for four incumbents to navigate on the campaign trail, regardless of political party or even how often they used it.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio
On Sept. 15, Rep. Tim Ryan submitted the required letter to vote by proxy. Days later, as that letter was used to cast votes on his behalf, his press secretary tweeted that Ryan was getting ready to start a “long day on the campaign trail.” Ryan has drawn negative attention for his use of proxy voting while campaigning for the Senate seat vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman.
Since winning the Democratic nomination in early May, Ryan has voted by proxy 60 percent of the time, a jump from 29 percent in 2022 prior to his primary.
His opponent, Republican J.D. Vance, has harshly criticized Ryan’s proxy voting. A spokesman for the Vance campaign said: “Last year Tim Ryan was the most prolific abuser of ‘proxy voting' in the entire Ohio delegation.” He alluded to the fact that Ryan voted by proxy twice as much as the next most frequent proxy voter from Ohio in 2021, Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez.
“Ryan’s shameful conduct is a direct insult to the millions of Ohioans who can’t phone it in,” the spokesman said.
Ryan has defended his use of proxy voting, telling Spectrum News, “I’m going to continue to use it. I mean, it’s an opportunity for me to both be in Ohio but yet cast my vote here.”
Rep. Val B. Demings, D-Fla.
Rep. Val B. Demings is another House member running for Senate who has been attacked for her use of proxy voting, although she is one of the less frequent proxy voters in the House. Prior to Hurricane Ian’s landfall, the Florida Democrat had voted by proxy less than 8 percent of the time in 2022. Her opponent, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, said in a speech the night of the Aug. 23 Florida primary that Demings had “voted from her pajamas or whatever she was wearing” to vote by proxy “so many times.”
Demings’ campaign deputy communications director, Anna Breedlove, fired back. “Marco Rubio is a career politician who doesn’t even show up for work, and when he does he hurts Floridians,” she said. With the aid of proxies, Demings has a 99.4 percent participation rate on floor votes this year.
Rubio’s participation rate is 94.6 percent, placing him 73rd among senators. Unlike their counterparts in the House, senators are not allowed to vote by proxy and must be physically present to have their votes counted. When Rubio was last looking for a promotion of his own, running for president in 2016, he missed 23 percent of his votes and ranked 98th of 100 senators.
Former Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla.
Rep. Charlie Crist faced criticism for his extensive use of proxy voting while running for the Democratic nomination for governor in Florida. In 2022, Crist voted by proxy 75 percent of the time. A Republican-leaning watchdog group called for the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate what it referred to as Crist’s “abuse” of the proxy voting system.
His spokesperson said in a statement to Politico that “the proxy offers a great way to ensure his constituents’ voices continue to be heard on legislation under consideration in Congress.”
Crist decided to change his strategy for the general election and resigned from his seat just after winning the primary to focus solely on campaigning.
Rep. Steven M. Palazzo, R-Miss.
Long before the pandemic, Rep. Steven M. Palazzo earned the nickname “No-Show Palazzo” for a lack of events in Mississippi during his first term in Congress. Opponents tried to fit his proxy voting into that preexisting narrative this year as he faced a challenge in the Republican primary.
Palazzo was one of the plaintiffs in a Republican-led lawsuit against proxy voting last year, calling the practice unconstitutional. Yet he warmed to the practice as his election campaign heated up.
Palazzo had voted by proxy only four times from January through May this year, equaling 2 percent of the total votes taken in the House. But on June 7, when no candidates reached the 50 percent threshold required by Mississippi law, his primary race went into a runoff. Palazzo’s use of proxies jumped to 68 percent in the three weeks between the primary and the runoff.
During that period, Palazzo increased his appearances in Mississippi. On June 24, Palazzo debated his opponent for the first time since he had been elected to the seat 12 years earlier. That same day, Palazzo voted by proxy against the bipartisan gun safety package when it came up in the House.
However, this increased visibility was not enough, and he was eventually defeated by 7 percentage points.
Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.
This report has been corrected to reflect the spelling of Rep. Charlie Crist.