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Heated Debate Over Lawmakers Voting From Home Sparks Accusations Of Racism At State Capitol

DENVER (CBS4)- State lawmakers will be allowed to vote from home for the first time ever. The House and Senate passed a resolution changing the rules after hours of heated debate that included accusations of racism.

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(credit: CBS)

Under the new rule, lawmakers couldn't participate in debates, only floor votes, and only during a public health emergency.

Democrats say it's about protecting the health of lawmakers and voices of their constituents. Republicans say the job comes with risk and their constituents expect them to show up for it.

"It's a shame that I had to drive across town, against my doctor's orders to be here to speak up to ask for some compassion," said Rep. Jevon Melton, who was home listening online as his colleagues debated the resolution when he heard something he felt compelled to respond to in person.

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Jevon Melton (credit: CBS)

Rep. Richard Holtorf said, "What do you call it in the military? It's an acronym: AWOL: Absent Without Leave. And I don't think we should serve our country from home, you can't do it in the military and I don't think we should serve our state from home."

Holtorf's comments set off a firestorm.

Melton is one of three lawmakers who was absent. He says he's recovering from pneumonia and acute heart failure, "The nonsense that I'm hearing in this chamber, I can't help but go to work, being compared to an AWOL soldier."

It escalated from there. All three absent lawmakers are African American, bringing charges of racism.

Holtorf insisted it wasn't about racism, "This is larger than any one person or any one person's specific circumstances. What we are doing here is in fact monumental and will have implications for years to come."

Richard Holtorf
Colorado state Rep. Richard Holtorf (credit: CBS)

Republicans said the public doesn't get to participate remotely and neither should lawmakers.

Majority Leader Alec Garnett suggested that was a red herring, "I've been reaching out to the other side of the aisle for the last month-and-a-half to get this right. I've called, I've texted, I've called, I've texted... It's temporary, this isn't forever. Read the resolution!"

Republicans tried to amend the resolution to require a supermajority vote for it to pass, meaning it would have required Republican support. But Democrats said they'd been changing rules with a simple majority for more than 50 years. They also note that more than a dozen other states are already allowing remote testimony.

The resolution passed along party lines in both chambers.

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