Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, puts on a mask before talking during the special session on Thursday, July 23 at State Capitol. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Lawmakers as viewed through a plexiglass barrier while waiting to speak on the absentee ballot measure Thursday. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

It was a little spooky. The tally board instantly lit up Thursday in the Connecticut House of Representatives when the first vote was called — even though most desks were unoccupied and the vote buttons untouched. The lawmakers were not invisible, just socially distant.

For the first time in the history of the General Assembly, floor votes were cast remotely as lawmakers returned to Hartford for the first time since exiting the State Capitol in mid-March when COVID-19 brought much of government and commerce to a halt.

Legislators could log in to cast votes from their offices in the Legislative Office Building, the 1980s annex to the 1880s State Capitol. And, for the most part, they remained there, unless they wanted to debate one of the four bills on the agenda.

“The way this is going is sort of indicative of why Connecticut is doing the best in the country” on controlling COVID infections, said the deputy minority leader, Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “I think generally speaking, the public gets it and so do legislators.”

The main order of business was a police accountability bill unlikely to hit the House floor until long after nightfall. Hundreds of protesters — many of them off-duty police unhappy at the prospect of losing qualified immunity against civil litigation — loudly greeted lawmakers in the morning.

Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, is surrounded by a sea of empty seats as he straightens his mask during the special session on Thursday at the State Capitol. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

But the Capitol was closed to the public, another first. The people could watch the people’s business, but only through CT-N, the public-access network that provides gavel-to-gavel coverage on cable systems and online.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and his deputy speakers presided wearing masks. Face coverings were ubiquitous on both sides of the aisle, a sign they are less a political statement in Connecticut than a precaution, though many of the off-duty police officers went maskless.

Plexiglas shields trimmed in a dark wood matching woodwork in the House separated the House clerk and his small staff from the few members who ventured into the chamber.

“It’s still kind of surreal being back up here,” said Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, a deputy speaker. He and others struggled throughout the day with technical glitches.

Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, reads a document during the discussion on absentee ballots. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, reads a document during the discussion on absentee ballots. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

One of the glitches was a discovery that any lawmaker who logged into the voting system from the LOB could not easily cast a vote if they came over to the House. The LOB system locked out their House chamber voting buttons. So, those members had to rise and ask the speaker to manually record their votes.

The Senate is scheduled to go through a similar process when it convenes Tuesday, with one major difference. The Senate voting system does not allow remote voting.

The House returned in special session for an agenda limited to four topics: police accountability; no-excuse absentee ballot voting in November as a COVID precaution; an extension of an executive order mandating insurance coverage of telemedicine during the pandemic; and an insulin cost-containment measure.

The bill extending insurance coverage of telemedicine, as ordered by Gov. Ned Lamont in an executive order due to expire with the end of the public emergency in September, passed on a vote of 145-0 in the early afternoon. No-excuse absentee balloting passed 144-2 about five hours later, at 6:29 p.m.

Deputy Speaker Christopher Rosario takes a turn presiding over the debate on absentee ballots. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“It was a little bumpy, admittedly, to start, but I think we’re getting there. Some members are adjusting but we appreciate everyone’s cooperation,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “Look, we’re voting on a bill, so that’s an accomplishment.”

Candelora said he was pleasantly surprised that House members adjusted to working from outside the chamber.

“The members are more cooperative than I thought they would be, so that’s good,” Candelora said. “These are 200-year-old rules that we are following that are all out the window right now.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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