Hiccups as Virginia lawmakers adapt to legislating by Zoom

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House speaker Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, exits the center isle of the empty VirginianHouse of Delegates chamber after a Zoom Legislative session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. – The coronavirus pandemic is again upending the daily routines of the tradition-bound Virginia General Assembly.

The body that traces its lineage back more than four centuries to 1619 has been working under extraordinary circumstances, legislating to a substantial degree by video conference.

The situation has led to persistent technical difficulties, an uncharacteristically profane hot mic situation and more serious complaints from lawmakers and advocates alike. Critics say legislating over Zoom has limited transparency, stifled public participation and diluted the democratic process.

“If we were to do this year in and year out, I would think it was terrible. I mean, given our situation, I think it’s OK," said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The House speaker has said the adjustments - made in consultation with public health experts - were essential and have succeeded in keeping lawmakers and staff healthy.

The 100-member House of Delegates opted to meet virtually to prevent the spread of the virus, like it did for the majority of a special session last year. The smaller Senate has been meeting in person, but members were given the option to participate remotely after Sen. Ben Chafin died in January after contracting the coronavirus.

Neither chamber opens committee and subcommittee hearings, where much of the work shaping legislation gets done, for in-person public attendance, though they can be viewed online. In normal circumstances, those meetings are open to the public.

Some Democrats tout the benefits of the virtual system, including the ability to testify on a bill by video without taking a day off from work to travel to Richmond, the chance to provide written comment, and the livestreaming of all public meetings.