Alberta MLAs to consider virtual voting in the legislature

·3 min read
Alberta Speaker Nathan Cooper says the legislature has been preparing to try allowing MLAs to vote remotely, should they choose to amend the rules to allow it. (The Canadian Press - image credit)
Alberta Speaker Nathan Cooper says the legislature has been preparing to try allowing MLAs to vote remotely, should they choose to amend the rules to allow it. (The Canadian Press - image credit)

MLAs could vote virtually in the Alberta legislature for the first time in history if members agree to proposed new rules.

Representatives are poised to vote next week on temporary changes that would allow them to vote via video link.

Speaker Nathan Cooper said MLAs have asked his office for this adaptation during the pandemic. Most provincial legislatures have already adopted remote voting, he said.

"I think that the pandemic has seen lots of workplaces make adjustments, and across the country, legislatures have also made similar adjustments," Cooper said in an interview.

There are substantial technical challenges in adapting a century-old building to allow virtual participation, he said. One hurdle was ensuring people who watch the proceedings on TV or online can see and hear the MLAs who are appearing remotely.

"It's really important to the speaker's office that Albertans have access to their democracy even in the middle of the pandemic," Cooper said.

The legislature's public gallery is currently closed due to public health restrictions.

If MLAs approve the process as proposed, anyone voting remotely could only participate in recorded votes. During a recorded vote, the MLA would have to appear on camera and say their yes or no vote aloud.

It could slow voting down a bit, Cooper said, as the table officers call on each participating MLA alphabetically.

Typically, during a recorded vote, each MLA for or against stands up in the chamber, and a table officer calls each of their names into the record.

No remote debate for now

Although members of Parliament and senators have been participating remotely in debates in Ottawa, Alberta's legislature doesn't yet have that technical capability, Cooper said.

Any MLA who wants to speak to a bill, an amendment, a motion or another matter will have to appear in person.

Legislative committees have allowed virtual participation for months. Those meetings take place in the modernized Federal Building.

For most of the pandemic, both the United Conservative Party government and Opposition NDP have been limiting the number of members in the legislature to help them stay apart.

The legislature took an unplanned three-week adjournment in late April after MLAs had spent a week in their constituencies. COVID-19 cases were jumping across the province, and the government said it was unwise to gather all members in Edmonton.

The Opposition has been critical of the move, saying the UCP is distracted by internal party politics.

In a written statement, government house leader Jason Nixon said he supports the plan to start with virtual voting as a first step, rather than attempting remote debates. The reliability of Internet service varies across Alberta, he said.

"The government remains committed to continue the spring sitting until the current legislative agenda is concluded," Nixon said.

MLAs had begun debating 14 government bills during the spring sitting that they have yet to pass. They include changes to the public health act that would remove the government's power to force vaccinations, and bills to introduce recall legislation and citizen-prompted referendums.

Opposition house leader Christina Gray said the NDP is anxious to return to the legislature to debate pandemic and economic response measures.

"If hybrid voting helps us to get back into the house faster, we are fully willing to work with the Speaker's office and the government to make that happen," she said.