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Legislature pays for remote-voting system on the eve of a coronavirus-impacted session

Legislative Council approves buying a remote-vote system during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legislative Council approves buying a remote-vote system during the COVID-19 pandemic.(KTUU)
Published: Jan. 18, 2021 at 6:33 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Legislature agreed to pay for a remote-voting system for a coronavirus-impacted legislative session that begins on Tuesday.

Under current rules, legislators must be physically present in the Alaska House of Representatives or Senate to vote. There would need to be a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to formally adopt a remote-voting procedure for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The remote-voting system costs around $74,000, and it will be run by the International Roll Call Corp. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states have adopted some sort of remote-voting during the pandemic.

The Legislative Council, a committee that operates on behalf of the Legislature when it is not in session, approved the purchase of the system on Monday by a 12-0 vote.

It would be up to the next Senate President and House Speaker to decide when floor sessions are held remotely during the pandemic. They would stay in the House and Senate to manage the debate and legislators would vote from home, their offices or legislative information offices.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said complicated bills with dozens of legislators debating would be difficult to be heard online. “It’s going to take a lot of time,” he added.

The intention would be to only use a remote-voting system under dire circumstances such as during a mass COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol.

The implementation of a remote-voting system is the latest effort to conduct a safe legislative session during the pandemic. The Alaska Capitol is closed to the public — there are tough screening and testing measures in place — and face masks must be worn by everyone in the building.

The chair of the Legislative Council, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said that the decisions made by the 31st Legislature would operate until a new Legislative Council is chosen. The new committee could choose to change or ignore the rules currently in place.

In a first for Alaska, the House and Senate have both still not organized, one day before the session starts, meaning there are no majority caucuses in either chamber to choose a Senate president or House speaker.

On Friday, Edgmon said he thought it was “unlikely” that the House would organize before the session starts on Tuesday. Two years ago, the House failed to organize for over a month.

Twenty House Republicans released a statement on Friday, saying they supported a Republican-led majority in the House. At least 21 legislators are needed to form a majority caucus in the House.

House and Senate committees can also not begin their work without an organization. Formal legislative work would all but grind to a halt until majority caucuses are formed.

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