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Chestnut lauds House COVID precautions

The Alabama House of Representatives is taking action to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic in advance of next year’s legislative session by purchasing remote voting tablets from lawmakers, allowing them to spread out and adhere to social-distancing guidelines and other public health restrictions.

During normal times, House members cast votes from their designated seats on the House chamber floor, but next year’s session will see legislators voting via tablet from the floor, as well as the gallery that overlooks the floor and a nearby overflow room.

The House will seek reimbursement for the tablets, which cost about $120,000, from the state’s share of federal coronavirus funds allocated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The new tablets work in conjunction with the House’s existing voting system and will allow lawmakers to vote from beyond the statehouse.

“I like the idea of using laptops that work with the existing voting system, which will alow members to vote from the gallery or other locations,” said Alabama Rep. Prince Chestnut, D-Selma, who will be using the new system when the session begins early next year. “The way laws are made is very personable, intense, engaging and it is extremely difficult to socially distance.”

Chestnut noted that the next legislative session, slated to begin Feb. 2, will have lawmakers facing not only the current pandemic but the regular cold and flu season.

“We are scheduled to go in at a dangerous time where the virus is peaking,” Chestnut said. “The cold weather and flu season appear to accelerate the detrimental effects of the virus.”

Still, Chestnut recognizes that the tablets and socially-distanced voting alone won’t be enough to adequately protect those at the statehouse.

“The laptops are a good step, the placement of members in multiple spaces to distance with those laptops is also good, but every effort has to be made and safe practices must be enforced to ensure the safety of our members, our staff, security, the public, as well as the lobbyists who all come to the statehouse during session,” Chestnut said. “Enforcement of safe practices is critical to the health, safety and welfare of all who work at the statehouse. If we respect each other’s personal space, wear masks and consistently wash our hand, we can make it work.”

Last year’s legislative session was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it is unclear how lawmakers will provide access to the public during the upcoming session, though lawmakers are considering using Zoom meetings and other means to meet with constituents and allow the public to view meetings and attend public hearings.