Court rules Georgia’s statewide PSC elections ‘dilute’ Black voting power
This story was updated at 2:42 p.m., Monday, Aug. 8, after the state filed a notice to appeal.
Voting rights activists celebrated Friday after a federal judge struck down the state’s at-large method used to elect Georgia’s Public Service Commission members, ruling it dilutes Black voting power.
As a result of U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg’s order, state officials could be prevented from holding elections to fill two seats Nov. 8 until the Georgia Legislature replaces its statewide voting method that has long resulted in an elected all-white commission even though the state’s population is about one-third Black. Only one Black candidate has ever won election to the state regulatory board, which determines how much Georgians pay for utility services.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Rose v. Raffensperger, were four Black metro Atlanta residents and community activists who testified during the trial that they felt the commission consistently failed to account for the disproportionate financial burden placed on many Black residents by higher Georgia Power electricity rates, runaway costs at the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion and other decisions in favor of the state’s big energy suppliers.
Since 1998, public service commissioners have been required to live within regional districts, but elections were held statewide. That system delivered candidates who easily won the majority of votes in Black districts but lost when the votes were counted statewide.
Grimberg ruled that the Black electorate is sufficiently large and geographically compact to have at least one single-member district.
The residents who sued do not have to show that that Black votes have been diluted because of purposeful discrimination, the judge wrote.
“It is the result of the challenged practice—not the intent behind it—that matter,” he wrote. “Race and partisanship are correlated because Black voters may perceive that the issues that matter to them are more likely to be addressed by a particular party or candidate.”
On Monday, State Attorney General Chris Carr filed a notice of appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the court’s decision to postpone two races that featured Republican incumbents, District 3 Commissioner Fitz Johnson and District 2 Commissioner Tim Echols. Johnson, who is Black, was appointed last year by Gov. Brian Kemp to finish Chuck Eaton’s term.
Johnson’s challenger is Democrat Shelia Edwards while Echols was set to face Democrat Patty Durand and Libertarian Colin McKinney.
The Public Service Commission members declined to comment on the ruling made in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Experts for the state testified during trial that partisanship and not race accounted for Black voters largely backing Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, sitting commissioners testified that the statewide elections resulted in regulators working in the best interest of the entire state.
Nico Martinez, a lawyer who brought the suit, called the court’s decision a triumph that validates two years of efforts to protect Georgians’ voting rights. He said it also will provide immediate accountability for powerful officials whose decisions affect the wallets of everyday people.
“It is one of the most important decisions to advance voting rights in a generation,” Martinez said in a statement.
Black voters supported the same PSC candidate more than 94% of the time in each of the six most recent general and runoff elections, yet each of those candidates wound up defeated, according to a statistical analysis from Stephen Popick, an expert witness for the residents who sued.
“Dr. Popick testified that, in all of his years of experience, his analysis of the PSC elections in Georgia since 2012 ‘is one of the clearest examples of racially polarized voting’ he has ever seen,’’ Grimberg said in his ruling.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the system used for Georgia PSC elections could ultimately depend on whether the U.S. Supreme Court decides if Alabama’s 2021 congressional redistricting plan, which contains one majority-Black district, violates Section 2 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, Bullock said.
The significance of having one or two Democrats as regulators shouldn’t be underestimated, Bullock said. Right now, only Republicans serve on the commission.
“Even though what they ask for maybe is defeated, what they say is going to get media coverage that a spokesperson for an interest group who might make the same argument may not get,” he said. “And it’s also the chance they might be the third vote on some issue.”
Brionté McCorkle, a plaintiff and executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters, said it’ll be a win to elect a commissioner who doesn’t rubber stamp everything that Georgia Power asks for.
“That can be a person who says ‘I’m gonna grill you, I want to push you on these areas of clean energy, of energy efficiency, and charging people fair rates,” she said. “One person in that room can make a difference.”