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Federal Judge rules Georgia Public Service Commission drawn districts violate Voting Rights Act


A federal judge, Steven Grimberg, ruled Friday that Georgia’s statewide election of its five public service commissioners illegally dilutes Black voting power and has ordered the state not to prepare ballots for two PSC races scheduled in November.

If the ruling by U.S. District Judge Grimberg stands, it means that state lawmakers would have to draw single-member districts for the body that regulates Georgia Power Co. and other utilities, subject to court approval. An election would be held later.

While members of the Public Service Commission declined to comment, Attorney General Chris Carr’s office said it was reviewing the decision. The state could appeal, given that federal courts have shown significant skepticism about Voting Rights Act litigation in recent years. It could also argue that the ruling is too close to the election and seek a delay.

The lawsuit was brought by leaders of the NAACP, Georgia Conservation Voters, and Black Voters Matter. Plaintiffs in the case say they hoped the decision would bring to the forefront concerns of Black voters, including people with lower incomes who pay high utility bills. “Black voters will no longer be ignored and have their concerns about clean energy, pollution, and high power bills drowned out because of unfair archaic laws,” said Brionte McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters. 

Until now, commissioners have been elected statewide but are required to live in a particular district. District 3 Commissioner Fitz Johnson and District 2 Commissioner Tim Echols, both Republicans, were seeking reelection. Johnson was being challenged by Democrat Shelia Edwards while Echols faced Democrat Patty Durand and Libertarian Colin McKinney. Both Johnson and Edwards, running to represent a district that includes Clayton, DeKalb, and Fulton counties, are Black. Edwards is the publisher of SPOTLIGHT South Cobb News. 

Edwards must now wait to see if the AG or Secretary of State files an appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Following the ruling, Edwards issued a statement saying, “For Black voters, the Voting Rights Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation for elections in Georgia and within our nation’s history. Our campaign supports the inclusion of voters, especially Black voters, to choose their commissioners. We applaud the district court’s decision to stand for the rights of Black voters. Meanwhile, we remain focused on getting the word out, fundraising, and winning the PSC election, whenever it is held.

As the next PSC Commissioner, Edwards says she is committed to lowering electricity bills, building clean energy, and working on expanding rural access to broadband internet. 

“This race highlights the important role the PSC plays in the lives of all Georgians as it impacts the amount companies charge for utilities, such as water, electricity, and gas,” said Edwards. “For our campaign, this court ruling changes nothing. If the 11th Circuit overturns the decision, we will have an election in November. If the appellate court upholds the ruling, we will utilize the additional time to continue to educate Georgians on the importance of the PSC and how their vote in this race directly impacts their household budgets and their quality of life in Georgia.”

Grimberg wrote that his ruling would “regrettably cause disruption” to November’s elections, and agreed that Echols and Johnson would remain in office beyond the end of their six-year terms until new districts could be drawn. The order anticipates lawmakers drawing districts in next year’s regular session. If lawmakers don’t act, Grimberg would draw the districts.

Grimberg rejected the state’s arguments that commissioners needed to be elected statewide because their decisions apply statewide. He also overruled the state’s arguments that statewide elections couldn’t be challenged under the federal Voting Rights Act and that district election would impermissibly change Georgia’s form of government.

Grimberg ruled that the plaintiffs had clearly proved that Black voters have generally been unable to elect the candidate of their choice in statewide voting, noting Black candidates won eight of 164 nonjudicial statewide elections between 1972 and 2021.

The state argued that Black voters aren’t getting the candidates they want because they’re Democrats, not because of their race. But the judge said the argument was faulty because it didn’t consider that race and party preference are entangled in Georgia.

“They are not selecting Democratic candidates because they are Democrats; they are selecting Democratic candidates because they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that those candidates will be more responsive to issues that concern Black voters,” Grimberg wrote.

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