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News / Politics

2022 vote studies: Proxies helped keep participation at record pace

By Paul V. Fontelo, Ryan Kelly, CQ-Roll Call
Published: March 26, 2023, 6:02am

WASHINGTON — A year after setting a record for vote participation, thanks largely to a pandemic-driven House rule allowing members to delegate someone else to vote for them, Congress kept up the pace in 2022 — even as the number of votes taken increased.

Overall, CQ Roll Call’s annual vote studies found that members of the House and Senate combined took positions on 97.5% of votes taken last year, the same as the record set in 2021, when Congress broke the previous record of 96.9% set in 2015.

Senate participation dipped, but the overall congressional rate did not because the House took 100 more votes than in 2021 and maintained a rate of 97.8% of members casting votes. The 22% increase over the number of House votes taken in 2021 was also an anomaly, marking the first time in 30 years that the number of votes increased in an election year.

Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it was not unusual to throw a high number of votes into the queue during the waning days of unified government, but “the existence of proxy voting did provide leaders in the House a little bit more flexibility on some votes than they would have had otherwise.”

Proxy voting — empowering members to designate a colleague to vote on their behalf — was adopted in early 2020 as an emergency measure over Republican opposition in response to the deadly COVID-19 global pandemic spreading largely unchecked.

By 2022, the pandemic had receded, but proxy voting was more popular than ever, and it drove the House’s record level of participation.

Though Republicans still opposed the process, most utilized the proxy option.

Before proxy voting, nearly every Congress saw participation rates drop because of a handful of members who missed numerous votes for health reasons.

In 2022, however, proxy voting allowed members like Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., who was battling late-stage cancer, to weigh in on every vote called. McEachin cast his last recorded vote via proxy less than two weeks before his death in late November.

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The expansion in proxy voting since 2020 wasn’t limited to the growing number of members utilizing it. It also applied to when it was used.

To authorize someone else to vote in their name, members still had to say they could not be there because of the pandemic health emergency, even though vaccines were widely available in 2022. But that language became essentially boilerplate as members spent time on everything from non-COVID health emergencies to personal obligations and even political functions without missing votes, said Reynolds.

After winning control of the chamber in the November elections, Republicans confirmed proxy voting would end with the 117th Congress. Its use by House members ended with a bang, however, with a record high 226 members voting by proxy on the final vote in December 2022.

The final tally shows 42 members — 29 Democrats and 13 Republicans — weighed in on all 548 yea or nay roll call votes in the House. All but four of them (all Republicans) utilized proxies at some point in 2022.

On the Senate side (where proxy voting was not allowed), only four senators — one Democrat and three Republicans — voted in all 421 of their chamber’s recorded floor votes.

Unlike the House, the Senate kept to the election-year trend and took fewer votes last year than in 2021, a decline from 528 to 421. The last time the Senate took more votes in a two-year Congress was in the 92nd Congress in 1971 and 1972. And the participation rate for the 117th was over 96%, compared to 81% in the 92nd.

The 117th Congress marked the first time the House’s participation rate exceeded that of the Senate in an election year since 1980.

Most missed Senate votes came from senators who were retiring or dealing with personal health issues.

While departing House members could cast votes by proxy as they packed up their offices, senators checking out early had to make a clean break.

After announcing his retirement, Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., gave his farewell-to-the-Senate speech on Dec. 14. He missed all but one of his remaining votes.

New Mexico Democrat Ben Ray Luján, who had suffered a stroke in January 2022, cast votes 82.7% of the time for the year. While the Senate did not take up a form of proxy voting procedures, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., paired his vote with Luján’s, changing his “no” vote to “present” on a confirmation vote for Robert Califf to lead the Food and Drug Administration.

Pairing is a procedure whereby one senator votes present so the absence of a colleague with an opposing stance does not affect the approval or rejection of a bill or nomination. Since Rounds and Luján had opposing positions, the votes for and against were effectively both lowered by a single vote, and the outcome wasn’t affected by Luján’s absence.

Rounds missed the most votes out of any senator in 2021, when his wife died after a lengthy battle with cancer. He told CQ Roll Call that he chose to pair with Luján because it’s “simply a way to allow people to still have a life. Things happen, people get sick, they have funerals.”

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