Virginia Legislature Launches iPad Experiment

By: - January 5, 2011 12:00 am

A few years ago, the Virginia House of Delegates gave Delegate Lionell Spruill a laptop computer to help him keep track of legislation.

“I never touched the damn thing,” says Spruill, who preferred carrying around stacks of paper. “I’m 64 years old. I’m old school and I just didn’t know how to use a laptop.”

With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine that Spruill would have much use for an iPad, the new electronic tablet that Apple introduced last year. But Sharon Crouch Steidel, the information systems director in the House clerk’s office, chose Spruill as one of 15 House members to get an iPad as part of a pilot program this session.

The 15 legislators in the experimental program, ranging from the tech-savvy to the technophobic, are free to use their iPads to look up bills and other information while on the floor or in committee rooms. The other 85 House members have to lug around a bulkier laptop or an even bulkier binder describing proposed legislation. If the legislators take to their iPads, Steidel can imagine replacing all the laptops with the new machines. Pam Greenberg, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, says she’s unaware of any other state with a similar program.

Lawmakers really don’t need another computer, Steidel says, referring to the multitude of laptops and desktops that have proliferated in the Legislature. Many members already have at least one at home, one to use in their political campaigns and, sometimes, a laptop for their day jobs. “You have all these computers and on top of that we were giving them one for the Legislature,” she says. 

Save a tree

By experimenting with iPads instead, Steidel was not so much seeking to cut down on computer sprawl as to control the amount of paper use, something that governments at all levels have been trying for years with limited success. Even in the decade since the House of Delegates introduced laptops, many lawmakers have still been relying on the printed books of bills.

The iPads are just another way to lure reluctant lawmakers into the digital age. It’s worked for Spruill. “Man, I love it,” he says. “This iPad, you just zap-tap it.”

Spruill used to rely on heavy bound volumes to keep track of introduced legislation. When necessary, he says, he would duck off the House floor to ask his chief of staff to print out copies of bills for him. He resisted learning how to use e-mail, telling potential correspondents to “give me a damn call on the phone.”

But since falling in love with his iPad, Spruill has crammed almost a decade’s worth of technological innovating into a few short weeks. He learned to e-mail, then he bought a new cell phone and learned how to send text messages to his grandchildren. “They’re tickled to death,” he says, with more than a hint of pride.

The House clerk’s office bought 25 iPads and related accessories — some will go to staffers — for just under $20,000. A similar program in the state Senate bought 20 iPads for about $14,000 to be used by the 15 senators on the General Laws and Technology Committee, as well as by a few staffers.

In the past, Senate staffers often would have to provide paper copies of bills, which turned into an arduous process, says Jonathan Palmore, director of information systems in the Senate clerk’s office. “They disliked managing all the paper and staying here until all hours of the night to get 15 bill books, with all of those bills, the paper cuts and the three-hole punch, the three ring binders. It’s very antiquated.”

Like its counterpart in the House, the Senate clerk’s office has been trying for years to reduce the amount of paperwork by giving out laptops, “but for whatever reasons, we’ve never been successful in reducing our paper,” Palmore says.

State Senator Frank Ruff, who sits on the technology committee, says he hopes the iPads will free up some desk space. “If everybody has their laptop open at the same time, it gets a little crowded on the committee table,” he says. Ruff, who owns an iPhone, has not had any trouble learning how to use his new iPad. If the program is successful, Senate committees could start using iPads to vote in a few years, Palmore says. Right now, committees have to vote by voice. 

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