Last November, Michael Caldwell voted on the winning side of the referendum in Woodstock to permit the Sunday sale of six-packs and other alcoholic beverages.
Caldwell celebrated as so many people do these days: He went to his Facebook page.
Only a year earlier, when his 20 years wouldn’t have been enough to buy a drink, Caldwell had attempted to oust state Rep. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock, in the GOP primary. She beat him by 5 percentage points.
Perhaps the defeat still stung. For Caldwell posted a photo of the giant electronic voting board in the House chamber, indicating how lawmakers had voted on Senate Bill 10, the bill to permit local communities to decide for themselves whether to permit packaged alcohol to be sold on the Christian Sabbath. The April 12, 2011, vote was 127-44 in favor. Byrd had cast a “no” vote.
Byrd was just as sensitive. The same day, she posted her own message on Facebook, declaring that her former opponent was mistaken about her position on Sunday sales. “After the vote was recorded, I sat at my desk and gave serious consideration to my action. Before the end of the night, I went to the clerk’s desk and registered my vote. … I voted YES,” she declared.
Caldwell said he quickly apologized for the mistake. “I’d never heard of that. I didn’t know you could do that,” he said. The exchange nagged at him, and — let’s be clear — he had a larger motive. Caldwell again is challenging Byrd in this month’s primary. So he had reasons to poke around.
“There’s always the chance that the incumbent just knows something that I don’t know, and I want to make sure what’s going on across the gambit,” Caldwell said.
The effort that Caldwell put into his research — as a salesman for a small safety equipment company, he describes himself as meticulous — went far beyond your normal opposition research. A team of six friends combed through thousands of pages of House journals.
According to their count, about one-third of 180 House members have never changed a vote once it was cast. Most others “dabble in it a little bit, but no more than two or three times on average,” Caldwell said.
He recorded every changed vote by every House member over the past six years on a spreadsheet and has begun passing the document around. “I wanted to make clear that I wasn’t just going after the one that was politically convenient to me,” Caldwell said.
Many of his statistics are stories begging to be told. For instance, in the opening days of 2008, during a furious feud between Gov. Sonny Perdue and the volatile Speaker Glenn Richardson, House members lined up behind their leader and overrode six of the governor’s vetoes. But state Rep. Gene Maddox, R-Cairo, sided with the governor. He voted against each override. And then decided he’d picked the wrong side. Maddox changed his vote six times that day, by Caldwell’s count.
But Caldwell also found that Byrd, his primary opponent, had come down with voter’s remorse 24 times in the past six years, registering more changed votes than any other member of the House. Her closest rival was state Rep. Ralph Long, D-Atlanta, who recorded 13 changed votes.
Just this year, Byrd joined a unanimous vote to pass a million-dollar budget bill — and then had a change of heart. “Because there were tax increases in that budget,” she said during a phone interview Wednesday.
As for her Sunday sales vote, after pushing her red “no” button, the lawmaker said she sat down and had a conversation with herself. “I realized I should not be imposing my convictions on others,” she said.
Byrd doesn’t dispute Caldwell’s tallies. But often, she said, conversations about bills continue after the vote, raising new details that need to be considered. “Every legislator has the right, if they choose, to change their vote,” she said.
It’s true. Permission is granted by House Rule No. 136, which allows legislators to add messages to the daily journal to explain their actions. Most often, the provision is used by lawmakers who are off the floor and miss a vote but want to declare how they would have voted had they been there.
The state Senate has a similar rule, but it requires senators to declare their changed vote in writing, on official stationery and with a real, honest-to-God signature.
But there is something we haven’t told you yet. And it’s something that both Byrd and Caldwell agree on. A changed vote doesn’t matter. It doesn’t count. It makes no official difference. That “no” vote on Sunday sales that Byrd cast last year? That’s the one that counts. The vote remains 127-44.
“If it doesn’t change the tally, how disingenuous is it for any representative to be claiming that he’s changed his vote?” Caldwell asked. “If you can’t change the impact, it’s not a changed vote. In reality, [Byrd] voted no and issued a footnote that says she wishes she’d voted yes.”
But Byrd says her changed votes aren’t evidence of indecision. For her, it’s a matter of maintaining a clear conscience — regardless of inconvenient timing. “This is not about me and my convictions,” she said. “If there are any questions, everything’s transparent. It’s all out there for everyone to see.”
As long as you know where to look.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider