Opinion: Democracy During a Pandemic Depends on New Ways for Public to Be Heard

Democracy
A view of the House Chamber Annex in the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis, where about half the members of the Maryland House of Delegates will sit during floor sessions, to ensure that lawmakers are keeping socially distanced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

The Maryland General Assembly will soon convene in Annapolis for its annual 90-day session. While this will be the state’s 442nd legislative session, business will not be as usual because of the coronavirus pandemic. The General Assembly is entering uncharted territory, and its leaders are working hard to keep elected officials, staff and the public safe while conducting the people’s business in Annapolis.

Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones have outlined major adjustments in how the legislature will operate. They are doing the difficult work of balancing health and safety issues and constitutional requirements while maintaining an open and transparent process that a healthy democracy demands.

The new protocols will mean greater distancing between lawmakers, shorter meetings, far more work conducted virtually and significantly reduced interaction between legislators and members of the public, whom they are elected to represent. Big public rallies and advocacy days that bring crowds of constituents to the capitol are prohibited.

These changes make sense from a public health perspective, but they also pose new challenges to ensuring the voice of the people can be heard as the General Assembly considers legislation that affects all Marylanders.

As in any year, Marylanders are right to be concerned about the undue influence of corporate lobbyists and special interests. But how can we stand up for the public interest?

Hearing from a wide range of voices is necessary to make sure legislation benefits and fairly reflects the will of the people. Without protections, those with access and influence, like big business lobbyists, will have an unusually outsized role in the decision-making process. We urge legislative leaders to expand opportunities for the public to testify, offer public comment and make their case on pending legislation.

While we agree that work should happen remotely to protect public health, we are concerned that the public and advocates will have less access to the process of lawmaking and less opportunity to be heard on legislation being considered. There will be no more popping into legislators’ offices or catching them in the hall and no more sitting feet away from elected officials in subcommittee hearings and floor debates to bear witness. With less staff in the building, there may be fewer people answering constituent calls, and with oral testimony limited, some will feel like their voices are being marginalized or silenced.

Some of the plans laid out by leadership will make this session more open than usual in terms of materials shared with the public. If all goes as planned, the public will have more timely and easy access to agendas, voting sessions, amendments and updated pieces of legislation than previous sessions. This is a powerful tool that can enable the public and advocates to weigh in on policy matters in real time and hold their elected leaders accountable.

It should certainly become standard practice after 2021.

The legislature is planning for all proceedings to be livestreamed. Leadership is addressing the challenge of making this technology reliable and descriptions of the plans offer encouragement that the public will have access to information and be able to closely observe official action throughout the session. Enabling access to video of all previously held public meetings is crucial to ensuring decisions aren’t being made behind closed doors and to maintain faith in the democratic process.

Bills taken up in Annapolis can have profound effects on people throughout the state, especially when so many in our communities are experiencing the health, economic and social effects of the pandemic. We urge every delegate and senator to step up to find new ways for their constituents to reach them: through office hours, district nights, and robust phone and email coverage. Engaging on social media would also be wise.

Democracy works best when we all participate, and while we may be Zoomed out, I encourage everyone to tune in to the decision-making process, whether you have a history walking the halls of Annapolis or are new to advocacy.

Our democracy faced massive challenges in 2020, ones that did not end at the turn of the year. In 2021, the people of Maryland deserve a legislative session in which they can participate and be heard by our elected officials as we weather and emerge from these devastating times.

— EMILY SCARR

The writer is Maryland PIRG state director. Her email is [email protected].