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Colombia: Congress to Vote on Legislation in Virtual Sessions

(May 5, 2020) On March 28, 2020, Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez issued Legislative Decree 491/2020, which permits governmental bodies, including the legislature, to conduct business virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Article 12 of the decree allows for remote sessions in which members can deliberate by any means (por cualquier medio) and make decisions by simultaneous or subsequent communications (comunicación simultánea o sucesiva). In the latter case, the subsequent communications must occur immediately according to the medium used.

Calls to convene such remote sessions must follow the procedures established in the regulations of each body and guarantee access to the information and documentation required for deliberation. Voting must also be carried out according to regulations and recorded in written minutes. Except for confidential matters and deliberations, such virtual meetings must be made public through channels authorized by regulations.

Remote Voting Procedures in Congress

After several weeks of holding virtual debates and oversight hearings on the measures taken by the national government to address the COVID-19 emergency, the Colombian Congress was due to begin voting remotely on legislative initiatives the week of April 27.

The process of virtual voting reportedly generates legal doubts among some lawmakers because congressional regulations do not specifically provide for the holding of virtual sessions; some fear the Constitutional Court could nullify remote voting. Accordingly, the Senate is setting up as many controls as possible to ensure that information technology is secure and that the procedures for remote voting are as similar as possible to in-person voting procedures.

The plan is to have a number of security filters in the Senate computer communications system to verify the identity of lawmakers. One such filter is requiring that the subject matter of the voting be communicated to both the institutional and personal emails of the members. Another is that the members must also manage a WhatsApp account through which they can be contacted. When these requirements are fulfilled, the members will be sent a link and a password to enter the session.

Once connected, the senators will enter a virtual waiting room in which the Senate leadership board verifies members’ identities before they can participate in the session. Members will then will be required to state their full names while their faces are shown to the entire plenary body.

The secretary of the Senate will call members one by one for the actual voting. The idea is to replicate in the virtual session a board similar to the one used in the chambers of Congress, where “yes” votes are registered in green and “no” votes are registered in red.