The Covid-19 pandemic took place in Spain from the middle of March, 2020. This situation made all civil servants in the Senate work from home. A solution was required to avoid the Senate to stop, otherwise, there wouldn’t be parliamentary sessions. We had to start implementing remote mechanisms using virtual private networks. We already had the capacity, but not in a massive way, since as many as 5 people connected to our computer system from their homes to perform tasks prior to the pandemic, something that increased to as many as 280 people connected simultaneously to the system in September, 2020.
On the other hand, we began to study and prepare for the possibility of holding meetings in different areas of the House by videoconference. We began with the senate governing councils, such as the president, vice-presidents and secretaries. We started using Apple’s Facetime application and quickly went to Zoom. We had acquired 10 licenses to conferencing simultaneously, then we started using Microsoft Teams. This first experience with the Senate governing council, which began to be carried out virtually, was later extended to other governing bodies of the committees with their spokespersons.
In addition, we realized that when the pandemic eased, we would have to start to have committee meetings and plenary sessions. We were especially concerned about the plenary sessions. The plenary room in which the plenary sessions are held in the Senate has about 307 seats. There are currently 265 senators and the capacity to work in the House was limited to 50% in a way that it was impossible to allow all senators to be in the room simultaneously. Furthermore, it was not possible for the voting to take place, the fact that not all the senators are in the room is not a problem, since some of them can participate from their offices following the sessions by streaming, but nevertheless for the voting, it was a problem.
Fortunately we had a system operating in the Senate since 2013, which allowed remote participation. It is a system that was put into operation at the request of a few senators on maternity leave so that they could continue the representation of the citizens. A system was put into operation and allowed, with a prior authorisation from the Senate governing council, senators on maternity leave, and with health problems, to vote from home. It is not a complete system, since it can only be used by some senators under authorisation. The votes are carried out before the session takes place, in such a way that senators cannot vote on all proposals, since there are some proposals that can be modified during the session, either because there is no consensus, or because motions against them arise.
This was the situation until the pandemic in 2020. We saw that the situation was complicated and that it would not be possible to make contributions on the floor, and since April, 2020 we began to make a modification in our system. It’s a java application that works with an app on the senators’ mobile devices that allows them to vote quite easily using a form that is made available to them with the proposals of each plenary session that are authorised to be voted.
It has a security mechanism since we have to prove that the senator who is voting is who he claims to be. After filling in the form with their vote, they should press the vote button. The computer system sends a one-time password that lasts about 10 minutes to the senator’s mobile phone, an official phone that has been provided by the Secretary of the Senate for them to carry out their work. This key is the one that has to be incorporated by the senator in the voting form. Once that is done, the system understands that whoever is voting is who they say they are, the senator.
Before the pandemic, the remote votes were announced by the presidency at the time that the voting by electronic procedure took place in the plenary session. Once the pandemic occurred, we began to work to carry out a new version of the system that allows all senators to vote with the new remote system. There is no longer the authorization mechanism, which also allows voting to take place during the session.
This new system was launched in June 2020. The voting process takes place in batches. The voting period would begin and then during this time the senators vote with the computer system from their mobile devices and at the end of this time a list is generated and the president has the complete remote vote. Once the next recess occurs, the president announces the result of the voting.
We also have incorporated a mechanism, a plan B, for incidents that may occur, if at any given time a senator cannot vote for whatever reason, they can call a phone number, which has five lines with civil servants who are waiting for someone to raise a problem. The senator has to call with his mobile phone because that is what verifies his identity. Then, the civil servant with the computer system incorporates those votes. It must be said that these special lines have a voice recording mechanism, for further verification, if required.
The last update that we have incorporated into the system in 2020 is that we have changed the electronic voting system that is on the plenary floor. We have incorporated the integration between the computer system and the voting system, in such a way that at the moment in which the president announces the result of the voting in the synoptic table that appears on the screen of the plenary floor, it will appear what has been voted.
We hope that the pandemic ends and we return to the normal operation, which is composed of almost all senators in the plenary floor voting, but senators on maternity leave, with health issues, or on official trips can vote from their tablet using this mechanism and the new system that we have incorporated allows us to incorporate a route with a small mark that differentiates the votes that have been made in the plenary floor and those that have been done remotely.
This is something to start sowing in the near future, once the pandemic eases and the circumstances return to normal, as this system allows the session to take place in the room.
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