In one of American government’s many mixed messages, those who wish to share their perspective before state lawmakers are nearly always required to appear in person, sometimes requiring days of travel and time off work. Oregon joined the small handful of states that allow remote testimony earlier this year, but others, like Washington state, struggle to gain support for what supporters are calling a “common-sense technology.”
Washington state Sen. Mike Padden has secured support from the Senate for the use of remote video conferencing that allows far-flung constituents to participate in the creation of state laws remotely, but the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives hasn’t responded to the idea at all since a pilot project launched in 2014, he said. The state Senate has spent the past two years testing the technology with help of local universities, which supply the facilities, equipment and technical support to make the operation run smoothly and without additional cost to the legislature. And in Washington, the technology has worked well, with just two instances of mechanical failure according to a recent report chronicling the pilot. Why remote testimony programs aren’t gaining wider support within the state or nationally, Padden said he could only guess.
“I think it’s a very positive bipartisan [idea],” said Padden, a Republican. “In a state as large as ours, I represent an area that goes right up to the Idaho border, so it’s one of the districts that’s the furthest away from Olympia,” the state’s capital.
Washington’s use of the technology has expanded since it was first offered, and it has since been employed by seven of the Senate’s 14 committees in 11 remote sites. Fifteen facilities, mostly community colleges, have offered to support the program as a courtesy, which means the program has required no additional funding to run. And most importantly, said Republican state Sen. Sharon Brown, another supporter of the program, it’s fueling the democratic process.
“Government is of the people, by the people, for the people,” Brown said. “And to foster that, you need to find means for people to participate.”
In Washington, the legislative session begins in January and long winters can — and sometimes do — prevent people from testifying when they’re literally cut off at the pass as they attempt to traverse the state.
“People who were in the process of coming over to testify actually got turned around before they hit the pass by police officers because the conditions were so bad,” Brown said. “It takes a minimum of one day for them to drive over and back and they had to take time off work. I just felt it was really unfair just because they happen to be located in Eastern Washington.”
Brown told StateScoop she also didn’t know why the House hasn’t responded to their suggestion to adopt the technology, but that she found it “frustrating” that such a valuable asset should go ignored. On environmental issues, for example, constituents in Seattle frequently have different concerns and perspectives than those who live in rural areas. The senators have found they truly appreciate having access to that variety of opinions, Brown said.
“They’re hearing not just from the senator that represents that district, but they’re hearing from the constituents that are going to be impacted by the legislation that we’re talking about,” she said. “To me, that’s incredibly meaningful.”
Bernard Dean, chief clerk for the Washington House and the official who would be responsible for approving the technology’s testing in the House, did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
In states where remote legislative testimony is available — Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, and Colorado — the technology typically requires minor adjustments to the hearing process. Some interviewed for this article speculated that some legislators may wish to avoid anything that would further complicate the process.
In Washington, those who intend to testify remotely are required to sign up via a website 24 hours in advance and record keepers have had to make slight adjustments to the overall process to keep things running smoothly, officials told StateScoop.
In Colorado, a state that approved remote video testimony in 2014, pre-registration isn’t required, but fears of what strange things people might do if allowed to use personal webcams limits participation to those willing to travel to a participating university, one staffer told StateScoop.
Both Alaska and Hawaii permit the use of remote audio testimony and personal webcams to overcome their geographies.
Oregon passed House Concurrent Resolution 24 in June with the idea of making the process more accessible to those in rural areas or to elderly citizens who have trouble getting around.
“This bill levels the playing field for communities that typically do not have the resources or ability to interact with the legislature and impact the process,” Republican Rep. Knute Buehler, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said in a statement.
Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform within the Washington Policy Center, said he knows from personal experience how valuable remote testimony can be.
“I’m looking at about a nine hour round-trip drive to get to Olympia. It’s usually for one minute of testimony,” Mercier said. “… It’s in the winter time and we’re a very large geographic state, so the reality is that those who testify are primarily the trade groups, the lobbyists — the usual suspects. The average citizen and taxpayer who may have a position or want to tell their story on these policies are going to impact them, generally doesn’t have the opportunity to get there.”
When asked why the House doesn’t want to try it, Mercier said: “I have no idea.”