Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower, who represent Oconee County in the Georgia House of Representatives, ended their Legislative Rundown column in The Oconee Enterprise on March 4 with this invitation.
“Constituent feedback is critical in decision making on all legislation,” they write. “As always, please reach out to us anytime.”
The pair’s weekly columns in the paper all end in a similar refrain and contain Gaines’ and Wiedower’s official email addresses and sometimes their telephone numbers.
But it turns out Gaines and Wiedower are not interested in communicating with voters about one key issue before the General Assembly: proposed changes in the state’s voting laws.
At a time when legislation–most of it Republican generated–is dropping like rain in a heavy storm in the state Capitol, and the pair has voted in favor of one of those bills restricting voting, they are all but ignoring the issue in their columns.
And they have refused to answer questions on their views on the need for election law changes, on their votes for the Bill passed by the House, and on the integrity of elections in November in Oconee County, their districts, and the state.
Most Recent Column
Gaines and Wiedower began their column in Thursday’s edition of The Enterprise by telling their readers that the legislative session is more than half over and “we are quickly seeing movement on the most important measures of the year.”
|Click To Enlarge|
They then turn to “Houston’s legislation to stop local governments from defunding the police,” a bill to exempt water and sewer authorities from paying sales tax, an effort to revise the Non-Public Postsecondary Education Commission, and a bill to name a bridge after former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
In the 19th paragraph of a 24-paragraph column, they finally mention House Bill 531, which, they say, “includes several provisions, including an ID requirement on absentee ballots, outlining the processing of absentee ballots, and transparency measures for poll watchers.”
The Bill was the product of a Special Committee on Election Integrity, on which Gaines sits.
But the column doesn’t tell readers how Gaines contributed in that Committee or that both of them voted for the Bill on the House Floor. It also doesn’t give any sense of why they voted for the Bill.
House Bill 531 Outlined
House Bill 531 is a 66-page-long bill passed by the House on March 1 and currently before the Senate.
The Bill would remove the Secretary of State as a voting member of the State Election Board and make the chair an appointee of the General Assembly.
The Bill restricts absentee balloting in several ways, including by adding a requirement that applications be accompanied by forms of identification such as a driver’s license number of a photo image of other prescribed documents.
The times for requesting an absentee ballot would be restricted, and the use of drop box for returning the ballots would be limited.
Advance voting also would be constrained, including restrictions of use of Sunday’s for advanced voting.
Every one of the 97 votes in favor of the Bill in the House was cast by a Republican. Every one of the 72 votes against the Bill was cast by a Democrat.
Back in January I asked Gaines and Wiedower, along with Sen. Bill Cowsert, who also represents Oconee County, to indicate what changes they felt needed to be made to the state’s election laws.
Cowsert answered, but Gaines and Wiedower did not.
I wrote the three of them again on Feb. 19 asking them to comment on bills being proposed.
Again, I heard from Cowsert but not from Gaines or Wiedower.
Last week, I wrote Gaines and Wiedower once again, this time asking some very specific questions about their views on the integrity of the Nov. 3 election.
Again, I have not received even an acknowledgment of the request.
In trying to get comments from them, I’ve used both their personal and legislative emails and also have texted them on their phones.
I know I’m reaching them, because on Jan. 28 I received an email response from Gaines, who is my representative in the House, after I had written him and commented on a letter he had written in The Enterprise.
On March 3, I wrote:
“I am asking you to address what clearly is the major issue in the General Assembly at present. I would like to know your answers, and I think others would as well, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with you.
“You have stated that you want to hear from the readers of your column in The Enterprise and that you will address the concerns raised.
“So here are my questions for each of you.
“1. Do you believe the results of the Nov. 3 election in Oconee County as certified by the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration and reported to the Secretary of State are valid, that is, reflective of the actual vote of the people of the county? If not, please explain that answer.
“2. Do you believe the results of the Nov. 3 election in your House District (117/119) as certified by the Secretary of State are valid, that is, reflective of the actual vote of the people of the District? If not, please explain that answer.
“3. Do you believe the results of the Nov. 3 election in the state of Georgia as certified by the Secretary of State are valid, that is, reflective of the actual vote of the people of Georgia? If not, please explain that answer.
“4. You voted in favor of HB 531, which makes a significant number of changes to Georgia’s election laws. Why did you support that bill?”
Neither Gaines nor Wiedower replied.
Gaines represents House District 117, which consists of three of Oconee County’s 12 precincts (Bogart, Marswood Hall, East Oconee) as well as parts of Clarke, Jackson and Barrow counties. Clarke County is the dominant part of the District.
Wiedower represents House District 119, which is about evenly split between Oconee and Clarke counties. All nine of the remaining Oconee County precincts are in the 119th.
The districts were created by the Republican-dominated legislature in 2011 to make two Republican districts out of what had been one Democratic and one Republican district. The Democratic district had been entirely in Clarke County.
All of Oconee County had been a part of the Republican district.
For the most part, the Republican strategy worked.
The exception was in 2017, when the two Republican incumbents moved to other jobs and Democrat Deborah Gonzalez won against Gaines in a special election for the 117th District and Democrat Jonathan Wallace defeated three Republican candidates, including Wiedower, in a special election in the 119th.
In 2018, Gaines defeated Gonzalez in the 117th and Wiedower beat Wallace in the 2018.
Gaines and Wiedower won re-election in 2020, Gaines against Mokah Jasmine Johnson and Wiedower against Wallace.
Margin Of Victory
In fact, both Gaines and Wiedower won by wider margins in 2020 than they did in 2018.
|Click To Enlarge|
In the special election in 2017, Gaines got only 46.9 percent of the vote in District 117.
Gaines got 53.6 percent in 2018 and improved that figure to 56.6 in 2020.
Wiedower and the other two Republican candidates in the 2017 special election got 43.3 percent of the vote.
Wiedower got 52.8 percent of the vote in 2018 and improved that figure to 54.9 percent in 2020.
No complaints about election irregularities were voiced by Gaines or Wiedower, by Johnson or Wallace, or, at least officially, by anyone else.
Gaines and Wiedower have written six columns for The Enterprise this legislative session, starting on Jan. 28.
The columns the two write are a celebration of legislating and of the primacy of the General Assembly itself.
Week after week, the column lists legislation the two are working on. They are written as a joint summary by Gaines and Wiedower, but the voice is much closer to the style of Gaines in public presentations than to that of Wiedower.
Gaines, in his 2018 campaign against then incumbent Deborah Gonzalez, criticized her repeatedly for not having her name on legislation passed in the House.
Michael Prochaska, editor of The Enterprise, left a comment on my Feb. 24 post on this blog providing background on the column.
“The Oconee Enterprise editorial staff does not instruct Marcus and Houston what to write in their columns,” he said.
“Were I to ask them to write about specific legislation, I honestly don't know if they would oblige,” he continued.
“Regardless, I have given them the flexibility to write what they want,” Prochaska wrote. “The purpose of the column is to be a weekly update on everything going on at the capitol, rather than an analysis on any one particular bill or issue.”
Mentions of Elections Laws
In the column on Jan. 28, Gaines and Wiedower said that “election laws” would be one “area of focus" in the legislative session, along with expanding broadband across the state and the health and economic impact of COVID-19.
“As legislation regarding these topics moves forward, we will certainly keep you updated,” they wrote.
In the column on Feb. 4, they wrote “Both of us have introduced our first bills of the 2021 Legislative Session, including bills addressing local elections issues and legislation ensuring paid parental leave for state employees in Georgia.”
“We will be sharing much more as these bills and other legislative priorities move forward,” they wrote.
They did not mention election laws in their columns on Feb. 11, Feb. 18, or Feb. 25. (The Feb. 18 column appears on the business page in the second section of the paper, and I missed it in the earlier version of this post.)
In neither of the columns in which they brought up the topic of elections did they give any sense of their views on the changes being proposed.
By the time they wrote their March 4 column, 15 bills designed to change the state’s election laws, including three in the House, were under consideration.
Sen. Cowsert has responded to my questions about his view on the need for changes in the election laws and on the bills he supports. Cowsert wrote two bills dealing with election issues.
One of the bills sponsored by Cowsert would shorten the time allowed for local election officials to submit local election files from 60 days to 30 days and set a penalty for not meeting the deadline.
Another would require the Secretary of State to set up and operate an election results reporting system.
Cowsert has since signed on as a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 241, which would “comprehensively revise elections and voting” in the state.
The bill would limit absentee balloting to those 65-years-old or older or who meet other conditions, such as having a physical disability or being a care giver of someone who is physically disabled.
Gaines and Wiedower are almost certainly going to voting again on changes to the state’s election laws when the Senate and House bills are reconciled.
If the past is a predictor, it seems unlikely that they’re going to do much to explain those votes to their constituents.