How they can do so varies from state to state. Several legislatures had already adjourned for the year by mid-March; four were never scheduled to meet in 2020 at all. Others were supposed to be meeting and suddenly couldn’t, so they searched for solutions — from socially distanced sessions dedicated to disease-related measures, such as Virginia’s gathering split between the capitol lawn and the state’s massive science museum, to proxy voting, to full-on remote operations.
How easily the most effective changes have come, or whether they have come at all, has depended largely on a simple factor: preparedness. Legislatures in at least 16 states and territories have altered their procedures to fit the moment, enabling remote participation in some cases and remote voting, too, in others — but two didn’t even have to do that. Oregon and Wisconsin already had constitutional provisions providing for the continuity of civil government amid catastrophe. Utah and Pennsylvania were also notably nimble in pushing through rules changes and standing up the right technology; both have earned accolades over the years for staying ahead in the innovation game. Several legislatures have struggled more with working from home but have managed to get the job done nonetheless.
Then there are the legislatures that have retreated into recess. As many as 25 bodies suspended their sessions initially, and at least 14 remain postponed. Some might lack confidence in their ability to put the proper systems into place, while many are stymied by their own constitutions, which explicitly require in-person meeting with no exceptions.
Louisiana’s Senate president made a full recovery from the novel coronavirus only late last month; an infected employee in Minnesota’s led to a widespread quarantine. State and local governments can’t afford to shut down any more than Congress can, and though convening in person might be safer in some jurisdictions than in others, risks remain throughout the nation. Those legislatures still squabbling over whether to find a digital solution should watch their peers and learn. All states should also remember that today’s emergency is unlikely to be the country’s last — and that the best thing to have in an emergency is a plan.