In Our View: Bring Olympia Within Reach

It's time to allow video conferencing for testimony before state Legislature



In this age of telecommunications and an interconnected world, there is no logical reason the voices of people in Olympia should ring louder than those in, say, Vancouver or Pasco or Spokane. There is no logical reason the Washington Legislature should delay employing remote testimony for matters that come before lawmakers.

These days, relatively simple technology exists that would provide citizens from outside the capital with improved access to the political process, allowing for input to be heard from all corners of the state. If, for example, the Legislature is considering a bill that directly impacts the people of Asotin (population 1,251 and the seat of Asotin County), it is absurd to expect concerned citizens to drive six hours each way in order to deliver three minutes of testimony before lawmakers. The current system requires stakeholders to be present in Olympia, not knowing if a hearing might be held over a day or if they will be given an opportunity to speak.

Citizens deserve better — something that should be self-evident in a state that values open government and access for all. But the logic of remote testimony is truly driven home by a recent survey from Washington State University that shows vast agreement on the issue from lawmakers, legislative staffers, and lobbyists. Asked, “Should video conferencing be used to allow for constituents to provide remote testimony,” 72 percent of lawmakers answered in the affirmative. Lobbyists, who might be expected to seek a stranglehold on the microphone in Olympia, also showed 72 percent support for the idea of testimony from afar. And legislative staffers listed remote testimony as one of the primary ways in which technology could improve the legislative process.

For Vancouver residents, by virtue of being on a particular side of the Cascades, a journey to Olympia is not terribly daunting. But it does require a round trip of roughly 3 1/2 hours by car, and it does require a commitment that can eat up most of a day. If the Legislature is discussing, say, a replacement Interstate 5 bridge, local stakeholders should have better access to their government.

This idea is not particularly new. As Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center has spelled out, legislative committees could have a sign-up sheet at locations set up for remote testimony, and then the committee chair would determine how much remote testimony to consider. “As is the case with those attending in person, being in the remote testimony queue would not be a guarantee of being able to testify — time dependent,” Mercier wrote.

Nor is this issue unique to Washington. In Nevada, where nearly three-quarters of the population lives in the Las Vegas area about 440 miles from the capital of Carson City, legislative video conferencing has been used since 1997. In Alaska, which is so vast that it encompasses more land than Ukraine, constituents may participate in legislative hearings through a series of remote teleconferencing facilities. And, to reinforce the extent to which video technology has permeated our lives, the Washington Court of Appeals this year upheld the right of a woman to deliver trial testimony from Spain via Skype.

The issue of remote testimony is not the most pressing concern facing the Legislature when it convenes next year (barring a special session later this year). But it might be the easiest to fix, as a properly written bill likely would receive widespread support and could be implemented with minimal cost. Most important, it would allow for more voices to be heard.