RI senators may be allowed to vote by proxy due to COVID-19 crisis

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Senate’s Democratic leadership is moving forward with a plan to allow proxy voting during the coronavirus pandemic, as both chambers of the General Assembly weigh when and how to resume regular legislative business.

The proxy proposal was outlined in a bill filed Tuesday by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Frank Lombardi, cosponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.

Under Lombardi’s bill, any senator would have the right to request permission to vote by proxy during declared states of emergency such as the current health crisis.

Approval of a senator’s request would be judged in part by “whether the senator making the request would face a hardship in attending session, or, during a contagion, falls within a high-risk category as defined by the R.I. Department of Health.”

Senators who receive permission would get proxy forms from the secretary of the Senate for each vote with checkboxes to indicate yea or nay. The forms would be either hand-delivered or emailed. Senators would need to have their proxy forms notarized before returning them, also either by hand delivery or email.

“The right to vote by proxy shall cease on the date that the state of emergency is officially declared over,” Lombardi’s bill states.

Neither the House nor the Senate has met in formal session since early March, though some committees have begun to hold hearings this month. The lack of activity has come under criticism from Republicans as well as some progressive Democrats.

Senate spokesperson Greg Pare said two other states — Arkansas and Oklahoma — have enacted proxy voting measures similar to what Lombardi is suggesting, and said a hearing on the proposal is likely to be scheduled for next week.

“Some members of the Senate are at higher risk of severe consequences from the current public health crisis due to their advanced age, underlying health condition, or status as a caregiver,” Pare said. “Proxy voting would enable members who are uncomfortable physically coming into the chamber another means to cast their votes.”

In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives has been engaged in a divisive debate over proxy voting, with Democratic leaders pushing through the rules change earlier this month over united GOP opposition. Republicans are now reportedly planning to file a lawsuit challenging the policy.

Asked whether the Rhode Island House is considering anything along those lines, House spokesperson Larry Berman said, “Speaker Mattiello said he has had no discussions with any House members about proxy voting and it is not something the House is considering at this time.”

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the Senate proxy proposal “indicates that the Senate is looking at returning in person and not allowing remote electronic participation.” He criticized the plan.

“It’s more limited than many other states are doing,” Marion said in an email. “It does a disservice to those senators, and by extension their constituents, who want to participate more fully in the legislative process by introducing amendments, or speaking on the merits of a bill, but don’t want to compromise their health by appearing in person.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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