Editor’s note: This article was updated August 9, 2022, to reflect the state’s appeal and its request to keep the races on the ballot.
ATLANTA – Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is trying to get two statewide races for seats on the Public Service Commission back on the November ballot after a federal judge ruled Friday that Georgia’s unusual system for electing members to the PSC violates the federal Voting Rights Act and must be changed because it dilutes the Black vote.
The PSC regulates the state’s public utilities, including Georgia Power, and sets utility rates. As such it influences how much Georgians pay for utilities and how environmentally friendly those utilities are.
The current five-member panel is all Republican.
U.S. District Court Judge of the Northern District of Georgia Steven Grimberg, a Trump appointee, on Friday ordered the Secretary of State to exclude the scheduled contests for PSC District 2 and 3 from the ballot in the November general election.
But on Monday, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr filed a notice of intent to appeal along with an emergency motion requesting those races stay on the ballot.
The emergency results from a looming election deadline. Michael Barnes, who runs the State’s Center for Election Systems, gave August 12 as the last date to finalize the ballot with little disruption, the order states. Early voting begins September 20.
Under Georgia’s current system, established in 1998, commissioners run statewide but must reside for at least 12 months prior to the election in their numbered district. Grimberg’s order also prevents any future PSC vacancies on the panel from being filled with this state-wide at-large method.
A group of prominent Black leaders who vote in those districts first filed the suit in 2020, claiming a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
The plaintiffs include Richard Rose, the president of the NAACP’s Atlanta chapter; Wanda Mosley, the national field director at the Black Voters Matter Fund (based in Atlanta); James Woodall, a former president of the NAACP Georgia chapter; and Brionté McCorkle, president of Georgia Conservation Voters.
Grimberg agreed with the challengers, finding statewide voting diluted the Black vote. The commission seat at the heart of the debate was on the upcoming statewide ballot, District 3, and is currently held by Fitz Johnson. Johnson, the only Black Commissioner and only the second in PSC history, was appointed to the panel by Gov. Brian Kemp in July 2021, after the plaintiffs filed their Voting Rights Act suit.
District 3, which included parts of Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Rockdale counties, was majority Black before redistricting earlier this year. With Rockdale now removed from the district, it remains a plurality Black at almost 49%, with another 10% Hispanic, including Black Hispanics. The district voters had consistently voted for the Democrat in races since 2010, but had been outvoted by voters from other districts.
Friday’s ruling prohibits Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger from preparing ballots for the November election for the PSC District 2 and 3 races. Carr’s motion seeks to allow it while the appeal moves forward.
Grimberg’s order also postpones the PSC election until the General Assembly approves a different method of electing commissioners and the court approves the new plan. Under the order, District 2 Commissioner Tim Echols and District 3 Commissioner Fitz Johnson are expected to remain in their seats until that election occurs.
The plaintiffs were represented by Nicolas (Nico) Martinez and Wesley Morrissette of Bartlit Beck LLP and Bryan Sells of The Law Office of Bryan L. Sells.
“The Court’s decision today vindicates what we have advocated for two years: Georgia’s statewide method of electing Public Service Commissioners unlawfully dilutes the votes of Black Georgians,” the Bartlit Beck LLP attorney said in a prepared statement. “This ruling immediately impacts how millions of Georgians will elect those powerful officials who determine how much everyday folks must pay for basic utilities. It is one of the most important decisions to advance voting rights in a generation.”
The Georgia Secretary of State’s office referred questions to the PSC and the office of the Attorney General Chris Carr.
PSC spokesman Tom Krause said the commissioners have no comment on the case.
“We are reviewing the order,” Attorney General Spokeswoman Kara Richardson said Friday. Late Monday she declined comment due to pending litigation.
Rebecca Grapevine of Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this story.