Erwin elected to Georgia House after do-over déjà vu

After two disputed victories, Chris Erwin trounced former state Rep. Dan Gasaway on Tuesday to win a Georgia House seat and end one of the state's most bizarre and bitterly contested elections.

The race between the two Republicans to represent House District 28 turned into a recurring drama for residents of northeast Georgia, complete with bruising political maneuvering, courtroom intrigue and claims of voter fraud.

The third vote, however, was devoid of any nail-biting end: The Secretary of State's office reports that Erwin captured three-quarters of the vote with all precincts reporting.

“I am so proud that our team has won three elections in less than 12 months,” Erwin said after the votes were tallied. “With a margin of over 3,000 votes, tonight’s results cannot be questioned or disputed.”

Erwin led the previous two votes by a narrower margin, but both times a judge threw out the results because they were tainted by illegal votes. That also left the residents of the district, which spans Banks, Habersham and Stephens counties, without a representative for the last weeks of the legislative session.

The do-over déjà vu began during the May GOP primary that first pitted Erwin against Gasaway, a three-term incumbent. No Democrat ran for the solidly-Republican seat; Donald Trump carried the district with more than 80 percent of the vote in 2016.

In that first vote, Erwin appeared to unseat Gasaway by a 67-vote margin — until Gasaway and his legal team discovered mapping mistakes that incorrectly placed dozens of Habersham voters in the wrong House district.

That prompted a superior court judge to order the first new election to be held in December. The margin of that vote was even closer: Erwin clung to a two-vote lead when the counting was finally finished after wrangling over provisional ballots. The certified vote count was 3,521 to 3,519.

But Gasaway filed a new legal challenge, this time claiming that 21 voters had illegally cast ballots. Among the residents listed in the complaint was Banks County Sheriff Carlton Speed, who was accused of living outside the district. He called that claim "insulting and humiliating."

After a four-day trial in February, the judge found that four of those voters were ineligible — enough to sway the outcome of the race. The results were nixed, again, and Erwin was removed from his House seat — leaving more than 55,000 people in the district without a representative.

The drama was no parochial affair. Stacey Abrams and other Democrats seized on the disputed vote to criticize how Republican Gov. Brian Kemp oversaw elections when he was secretary of state. And her group ran an ad during the Super Bowl with a local Republican commissioner emphasizing the need for electoral changes.

Kemp’s office earlier blamed Habersham officials for putting voters in the wrong district, and in interviews with more than a dozen local voters, many of them echoed that criticism – and vented about the need for a trio of votes.

“You want to make sure the right person is in, but a lot of this is unnecessary,” said Donald Harris, a Banks County retiree. “This should’ve been over with by now. To say there’s voter fatigue — well, that’s an understatement.”