Members of the UK's House of Commons will be able to remotely cast their vote on new laws for the first time in Parliament's history, in an effort to keep as much parliamentary business running as possible while sticking to the social-distancing rules in place to fight the spread of COVID-19.
In a shift away from the age-old rule that Members of Parliament (MPs) should be physically present in the Palace of Westminster's chamber to vote, the Commons Procedure Committee has deemed that the system for remote voting trialed and tested by the House's IT team was acceptable for the upkeep of democratic proceedings.
The chair of the Procedure Committee Karen Bradley wrote to the speaker of the House of Commons to indicate her support for the new procedure. "The system has been rapidly developed by the Digital Service to meet an urgent requirement of the House," she said. "The Committee is satisfied that the proposed system is suitable for use as a temporary measure during the pandemic."
The assessment, however, was made on the basis that remote voting stays temporary, and that the system is kept under regular review by the Committee.
The House of Commons has been questioning the government every week via Zoom since last month, but votes on legislation, such as budget measures, have been put on hold. Members agreed last month that they should be able to vote from home during the crisis, and a new remote-voting tool was developed, but parliamentarians decided to postpone holding any vote until the Procedure Committee had given the system a green light.
It is expected that online votes will take place as early as next week, although the Committee stated that the first use of the system should focus on issues unrelated to legislation, and that the speaker of the House should be able to re-run the vote if there is any technical problem.
MPs will be logging into a platform dubbed MemberHub, which they already use to table questions and motion remotely, via a single sign-on with multi-factor authentication. They will then be able to submit their votes, and receive confirmation via text and email.
The Committee stressed that "members have a personal responsibility to ensure the integrity of the system," and warned that any attempt to cast a vote on behalf of a non-member would be "very likely" to be found and punished. Overall, the Committee said it was satisfied with the assurances it was given about the security of the tool.
About 550 MPs have already voted in trials carried out over the past couple of weeks, with reports of some technical issues. Parliamentarians who are having connectivity issues or facing an IT failure during the procedure, however, will be given a chance to call the House Office to record their vote on the phone.
The announcement comes as Parliament only just starts to adjust to the new virtual format of some key proceedings. The House of Commons has pioneered, with a degree of success, the use of Zoom to live-stream MPs as they quiz ministers, with up to 120 members logging in remotely and only a handful of members physically standing in the chamber.
The upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords, has also given virtual Parliament a shot, but initially carried out proceedings via Microsoft Teams, and with worse luck than fellow parliamentarians in the Commons, before switching to Zoom which was the longer term plan.