Virus Outbreak California Legislature

In this image from a video conference, state Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, reacts in Sacramento after thinking he had said something while unmuted during a session of the state Senate on Friday.

SACRAMENTO — For a few horrifying seconds, Scott Wilk thought everyone had heard him.

The California Republican state senator, whose district includes much of the Antelope Valley, was trying to cast his vote on a bill from his apartment in Sacramento, having been barred from the Capitol along with most of his GOP colleagues because of their exposure to the Coronavirus a few days earlier.

It was the first time in the state Legislature’s 158-year history lawmakers were voting without being present in the chamber, and things were not going smoothly. Wilk’s computer was having problems, and his colleagues were having trouble hearing him on the video chat. When it came time for him to vote, lawmakers — and whoever else was watching the publicly streamed feed — could clearly see, but not hear, Wilk swear in frustration.

Senators erupted in laughter, and Wilk covered his mouth with his hand in shock. He relaxed again after he mouthed the words “can you hear me,” and his colleagues murmured “no.”

“Thank goodness I was muted. I could hear them, they couldn’t hear me,” Wilk said afterward. “I’m just glad the kids are back in school.”

It was a rare moment of levity for the normally august body, where things are so formal lawmakers aren’t allowed to call each other by name. But it was a perfect moment for 2020, when the Coronavirus has redefined what’s normal by forcing people to change how they work.

State lawmakers are no exception. Since March, legislatures in 25 states have changed their rules to let lawmakers participate or vote remotely in floor sessions or committee meetings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California lawmakers had resisted remote voting because of legal concerns. An opinion from the Office of Legislative Counsel earlier this year said remote voting would likely violate the state Constitution. An effort to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow remote voting failed to qualify for the November ballot.

But this week, Senate leaders were forced to act after Republican state Sen. Brian Jones tested positive for the virus and exposed nine of his colleagues. Public health directives say anyone exposed, even if they test negative for the virus, must stay isolated for two weeks. But lawmakers have a deadline through Monday to pass bills.

“It was my hope that we wouldn’t be put into that position. But unfortunately that’s where we find ourselves today,” Atkins said.

Friday, things moved a little slower in the Senate as it took longer for lawmakers to cast their votes. Senate staff had to hear and see lawmakers cast their votes, meaning senators had to sometimes repeat themselves.

At one point, people could hear a senator talking to someone on the phone when it was time for a vote.

“We’re live right now. You can call me back after lunch,” the senator said.

Senate staff had to rush a new computer to Wilk’s apartment to fix his audio issues. After that, he had no issues being heard — when he wanted to be heard. But Wilk said he didn’t think the remote voting process would be a long-term solution.

“I don’t think it works. I think it’s too hard for the people to petition their government and it’s too hard for members to communicate with one another,” he said. “It should only be used in the rarest of circumstances.”

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