Remote voting in the U.S. House hits a second anniversary, but it may be its last

By: - May 27, 2022 2:18 pm

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. lit up at night, seen from across the water under a purple evening sky. (Photo by Getty Images)

After two years of a temporary provision to allow remote voting in the U.S. House, the top 36 users of the proxy voting system are all Democrats, though Republicans have also taken advantage of it.

Proxy voting was meant to keep crowds of House members smaller and thereby limit the spread of COVID-19, back in the early days of the pandemic. The first proxy votes were cast on May 27, 2020.

But some members used it while running for higher office or attending political events, undermining the legitimacy of the system and potentially giving fuel to Republicans who could seek to end proxy voting if they retake the chamber in this fall’s election.

“That sort of threatens to ruin the practice for the folks who really need it,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Proxy voting is extended for 45 days at a time and currently has been set by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to expire on June 28. 

U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is a Republican from Ottumwa. She represents Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

It’s time for the practice to end, according to Iowa Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican who represents southeast Iowa. She has cast four votes by proxy during her time in office.  A spokesman said all four votes occurred “very late on the same night” and were part of the same vote series.

“The Congresswoman had pre-planned travel and unfortunately had to submit a vote by proxy,” spokesman Will Kiley told the Iowa Capital Dispatch via email. “The Congresswoman has long said that the House should return to full normal operations, including fully in-person hearings and markups, an end to proxy voting, and the return of tours and regular Capitol operations.”

Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne, who represents Iowa’s 3rd District, was the only other Iowa representative to cast votes by proxy. She cast 120 votes remotely over the past two years, about 16% of 614 votes cast between May 27, 2020 and May 1, 2022,  according to a database of proxy votes compiled by Cronkite News/Arizona PBS.

Head shot of Cindy Axne
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne is a Democrat who represents Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District. (Photo courtesy of Axne’s office)

Axne defended her use of the proxy vote from Republican criticism during the 2020 election. “I was named the Most Accessible Freshman Member of Congress last year, and I traveled to every county in this district at least once a month and held 57 town halls in 12 months,” she told States Newsroom in September 2020. I’m doing more virtually now — like telephone town halls and remote committee hearings — to follow the safety guidance of our health professionals, but none of that has changed how hard I am fighting for Iowa.”

 The top 20 users of the vote-by-proxy through April 2022 were all Democrats, the database shows. They are:

  1. Al Lawson of Florida
  2. Donald Payne of New Jersey
  3. Frederica Wilson of Florida
  4. Bobby Rush of Illinois
  5. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona
  6. Grace Napolitano of California
  7. Grace Meng of New York
  8. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona
  9. Katie Porter of California
  10. Alan Lowenthal of California
  11. Mark DeSaulnier of California
  12. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas
  13. Tony Cárdenas of California
  14. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey
  15. Albio Sires of New Jersey
  16. Lois Frankel of Florida
  17. Ted Lieu of California
  18. Donald McEachin of Virginia
  19. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California
  20. Chellie Pingree of Maine

The top Republican, according to the data, was Idaho’s Russ Fulcher. With 176 votes by proxy representing less than one-quarter of his votes over the past two years, Fulcher ranked 37th overall.

Grijalva, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Johnson, the chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, are the only committee leaders in the top 20.

Health cited

The members who answered questions about their proxy voting habits all said they were related to health concerns, either because the members themselves or those close to them were at increased risk of poor outcomes if they contracted COVID-19:

  • Payne spokesman Patrick Wright said: “The Congressman is a diabetic and diabetes is one of the highest ‘at-risk’ factors for catching COVID-19. He has utilized proxy voting to continue his service and work for his constituents in the 10th Congressional District while still protecting his health and safety.”
  • Frankel, through a spokeswoman, said: “I have used proxy voting as a public health precaution to minimize COVID-19 exposure for myself and others, especially my 96-year-old mother.” She added: “I used the time away from travel and in-person voting for many, many Zoom meetings with stakeholders, helping to guide them to relief through the COVID-19 crisis and a variety of other meetings we used to have in-person.”
  • McEachin spokesman Shahid Ahmed said: “Health challenges the Congressman has faced have made him more susceptible to COVID-19.” Ahmed added, “Out of an abundance of caution, he has used proxy voting, especially when we see an uptick in coronavirus cases.”
  • Grijalva has underlying health concerns and has caught COVID-19 twice, according to a spokesman. Through a spokesman, Grijalva sent a written statement: “Throughout the pandemic, proxy voting has been a tool for Members to keep themselves, other Members and their families safe from exposure to COVID-19. COVID-19 has shown us that Congress can adapt, and with the use of secure technology, continue to conduct the people’s business while spending more time serving their community in their districts. Using both the proxy voting process and remote hearings have afforded members the opportunity to be more accessible and available to their constituents.” Editor’s note: Grijalva’s statement was received and added after the story was originally published.

Fulcher was diagnosed with renal cancer last year.

Representatives for Lawson, Wilson, Kirkpatrick, Watson Coleman, Sires, Pingree and Fulcher did not respond to messages.

In her research, Reynolds found that the two greatest predictive factors, other than party, for how often a member would vote by proxy were the distance from a member’s district to Washington and age.

Republicans oppose proxy voting but some use it

House Republicans opposed the concept of voting by proxy and challenged the practice in court, eventually losing in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The numbers show Democrats are generally more likely to vote by proxy more often, and Republicans are more likely not to vote by proxy at all.

Of the 115 members since May 2020 who have never cast a proxy vote, 98 are Republicans. Michigan Libertarian Justin Amash also did not cast a proxy vote before he left office in January 2021.

But 149 House Republicans have cast at least one remote vote, meaning Republicans who have proxy voted outnumber those who have not.

Still, Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy spearheaded the suit to block the practice and Republicans generally have sought to undo pandemic restrictions, which could mean proxy voting’s days are numbered if the GOP retakes the House majority in this fall’s elections.

In a statement emailed by a spokesman, Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher, who has never cast a vote by proxy, criticized members who used the practice — especially those whose absences were unrelated to the pandemic. Gallagher called on Republicans to halt the practice if they control the House next year.

“Members are lying to their constituents when they submit proxy statements saying that it is the pandemic — not space launches, political conferences, or trips on Air Force One — that keeps them from conducting their sworn duty on the House floor,” Gallagher said.

“It’s destroying Congress and further eroding trust in this institution,” he added. “When Republicans take back the House, they must end this charade and require all members to be present in Washington to do the work that the American people sent us here to do.”

More than a dozen Republicans used proxy voting to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. Those members include Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Ted Budd and Madison Cawthon of North Carolina, Mark Green of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania and Greg Steube of Florida.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist of Florida, Kai Kahele of Hawaii and Thomas Suozzi of New York have all recorded substantial numbers of proxy votes while they run for governor of their home states.

Reynolds said she expected Republicans to end proxy voting if they take the majority. That change would have its positives and negatives.

It has been useful for members with COVID-19 or other serious health conditions to continue their jobs during the pandemic, but proxy voting can also hurt the overall health of the House by depriving members of opportunities to build relationships, Reynolds said.

Enabling members to vote from anywhere could encourage them not to come to Washington at all, she said.

“Time spent in the district is important and valuable, and it’s a real part of what members do,” she said. “But being in Washington is also part of what members do. And portraying time spent in the Capitol as unnecessary to do the job feeds this perception that the institution is a place to be avoided.”

Beyer helps out colleagues

The Cronkite database also tracked the members who cast votes on behalf of their colleagues. One member, Virginia Democrat Don Beyer, led that category by a considerable margin.

As of the end of April, Beyer had cast 2,209 votes on behalf of colleagues. New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone cast the second-most, with 1,683.

Representing a district just across the Potomac River from the District of Columbia, Beyer’s proximity is part of the reason his colleagues have so often turned to him for proxy-voting help, Beyer spokesman Aaron Fritschner said in an email.

As a committee chairman, of the Joint Economic Committee, and a member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the moderate New Democrat Coalition, the fourth-term Democrat has developed many relationships in the House, he added.

“Rep. Beyer is honored that his colleagues have placed this trust in him, and it has given him some good stories to tell (for instance, casting multiple votes to impeach former President Trump),” Fritschner wrote.

“Rep. Beyer hopes that as our society adapts to the changing nature of the pandemic and the health situation hopefully improves, votes in the House will return to being more in-person,” Fritschner added. “He is a big believer in the in-person relationships that Members of Congress form in the process of legislating.

“But while conditions and rules necessitate proxy voting, Rep. Beyer will continue to help his colleagues as he has done since mid-2020.”

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.