Tuesday evening, on Day 38 of the legislative session, the Georgia House of Representatives had all eyes on its chamber as the body debated
and voted on a measure to pass religious protections – a bill that has been at the forefront of the legislative news for two years.
After an hour of emotional debate from both sides and a 6:11 p.m. vote, it was over. The bill passed (Vote #777) 104-65. 1 member did not vote and 10 representatives were “excused” from voting for one reason or another. The House quickly moved on to another measure on fireworks, which called for a vote #778 at 6:27 p.m., and promptly adjourned for the day. The time stamps are available below.
Why is this important? Representative Bill Werkheiser, who represents Tattnall, Evans, and Wayne counties, voted YES on both of these measures and somehow managed to walk in the door in Wayne County for an Environmental Protection Division meeting with several hundred constituents last night at 6:45 p.m. – some 250 miles away from the Capitol.
All of these things took place and Representative Werkheiser joined 200 constituents at Coastal Pines Technical College in Wayne County ahead of the the event starting at 7:00 p.m. One of two things happened here:
- Representative Werkheiser left the House early and gave his electronic voting card to someone else to do his voting; OR
- He voted and then teleported to Wayne County.
The Georgia House does not allow a vote by proxy. Ethics rules of the Georgia General Assembly strictly prohibit members from giving their electronic card away or having another member of vote on their behalf. Members of the General Assembly are given their own specially-coded card to insert into their voting machine at their own desk as a mechanism to protect the integrity of the votes. After all, they are speaking on behalf of 53,000 people.
AllOnGeorgia reached out to Werkheiser asking for a statement on the appearance that he was not present in the House, did not have the Clerk of the House note him as “Excused,” and who voted for him. He responded Thursday morning before publishing:
“I intentially [sic] did not ask for an E by my name because several of the votes that were coming up were too important for me to miss. If you know anything about how politics work, you should know that having someone vote for you while you are off the floor is very common and accepted. I left instructions with three different individuals as to how I wanted to vote on each measure. The fact that you think this is actually newsworthy is pretty amazing. Had I taken an E would have been more of a story.”
Representative Werkheiser may be correct. It may be “common” and it may be “accepted” among fellow legislators, but it is against the rules of the House and counts as an ethics violation. Further, is everything that is accepted in the House justifiable to your constituents? Just because something “happens all the time” in politics doesn’t make it right and Representative Werkheiser wasn’t just “off the floor” – he was 250 miles away making a political appearance.
If Representative Werkheiser will just hand his voting card off to anyone, how do his constituents know he doesn’t often pass the buck? And what does it mean to leave “instructions” for someone else to vote for you? Moreover – what would happen to a citizen if someone else tried to vote for them in the ballot box?
What is worse is the fact that Werkheiser had a legitimate reason to be somewhere else – in Jesup. His entire district is well aware of the coal ash concerns in Wayne County and how long the constituents have been waiting for answers from EPD. The House provides excused absences for this very reason – a reason TEN other members of the House utilized on Day 38. If he will violate ethics rules for legitimate reasons, what will he do for illegitimate reasons?
Werkheiser ran on the platform of his predecessor on doing right and adhering to his conscience of politics. He even has an “ethics” section on his campaign website’s “Issue” page. To many, trying to appear in two places at once seems to be a “political” move. He is running unopposed to serve another two-year term.