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WA legislature is back in-person, but virtual public comment has more Washingtonians calling in

A screen titled 'Public Hearing' shows a bespectacled man in a wheelchair with a long white beard speaking into a headset.
TVW
John Frasca calls in to a Senate transportation committee on first day of session in 2022, from Port Townsend, Wash. Frasca uses a wheelchair.

On Monday, state lawmakers returned to Olympia, Wash. for the legislative session – and for the first time since 2020, things are back to some semblance of a pre-pandemic “normal.”

But one important thing from the pandemic is sticking around: virtual public comment.

Before the pandemic, you had to drive to Olympia and show up in person to comment on a bill in the House of Representatives. The Senate had a virtual option, but it wasn't used as much.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the only option was virtual public comment. And that has changed things for Washingtonians far away from Olympia.

"We had far greater participation by the public with our remote committee proceedings than we did when it was all in person," said Bernard Dean, chief clerk of the Washington House of Representatives.

"And that makes sense. I mean, I think if you're living in Spokane or the Tri-Cities or Bellingham, you know, there's a bit of a barrier there if you have to take time off of work, possibly drive over the mountains."

About 1,800 more people signed up to testify on House bills last year than in the session right before the pandemic, according to data from Dean's office.

In the Senate, about 6,000 people signed up to testify last year, as opposed to less than 5,200 in the session before the pandemic.

Take Abby Griffith, who testified on the first day of the 2022 session on a Senate transportation bill that included money for sidewalks and para-transit for people with disabilities. Griffith lives in Vancouver in low-income housing.

"I live in low income housing. I'm totally blind," Griffith said over Zoom in the hearing. "That means I take a bus to get to anywhere I wanted to go. If a bus doesn't go to some place... that means I miss out, whatever I want to do."

If Griffith had wanted to get to Olympia by bus and train it would have taken around three hours.

Virtual public comment is something the Senate introduced before the pandemic, but it took off in the last two years when it was people’s only option.

Washingtonians don’t have to testify to show support or opposition to a bill — they can also simply register as a yes or a no. They used to have to go to Olympia to do that too, but now can do it online. That’s resulted in a more than tenfold increase in registrations for or against bills than before the pandemic. More than 100,000 people registered their positions for each the Senate and House last year.

That's because before the pandemic, members of the public could register their positions on bills only while physically on the capitol campus, according to the House clerk's staff. Now, members of the public can sign in from any location.

Scott Greenstone started off working at his community college newspaper before interning at NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and covering homelessness for The Seattle Times. He co-produced the “Outsiders” podcast with KNKX, which was named one of TIME’s top 10 podcasts of 2020.
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