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‘Our Communities are Already Struggling’: Georgia Appeals Federal Court Ruling Blocking Election Process That Discriminates Against Black Voters

Georgia is appealing a federal judge’s decision to halt statewide elections for the Georgia Public Service Commission because they dilute the Black vote.

Voters were scheduled to cast ballots in November for two of the five seats on the commission, but U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg, in a 64-page decision, said the election process violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Allowing any Georgian to vote in the race for specific districts blocks the opportunity for Black voters to select a commissioner of their choice, Grimberg said.

The Public Service Commission oversees Georgia Power and other utility companies in the state. The companies must ask the commission for approval to change rates. Just two Black commissioners have been on the board since its inception more than 140 years ago.

Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Fitz Johnson to fill a vacant spot last year, and Gov. Roy Barnes appointed David Burgess in 1999. Burgess became the only Black candidate to be elected by voters when he retained his seat in 2000.

Our Communities are Already Struggling': Georgia Appeals Federal Court Ruling Blocking Election Process That Discriminates Against Black Voters
Brad Raffensperger, Georgia secretary of state, testifies during the fourth hearing on the January 6th investigation in the Cannon House Office Building on June 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

A group of activists, including a former president of the Georgia NAACP and the president of the Atlanta chapter, filed the lawsuit against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

“I’ve witnessed the Public Service Commission take actions that harm the Black community, harmed Georgia Power customers,” Brionte McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters, one of the plaintiffs, said.

Grimberg ordered Raffensperger to stop preparing ballots for Public Service Commission seats up for a vote on Nov. 8. The judge also barred the secretary of state from administering any more elections using the statewide at-large method.

Georgia, in its appeal, said the court erred by “determining that it had authority over the political processes in the state and did not sufficiently credit the linkage interests of connecting the officials’ jurisdiction (statewide decisions affect all ratepayers) with their electoral base.”

“This decision places a federal court as the sole arbiter of how Georgia may elect utility regulators in the state, despite evidence regarding the impact of abandoning statewide elections,” the appeal states.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case said in response to the state’s appeal that Grimberg held a week-long trial and “issued a detailed, 64-page opinion explaining why he ruled in favor of our clients.”

“We believe his ruling was correct and well-reasoned, and we are confident the Court of Appeals will agree,” they said.

Commission seats for Districts 2 and 3 are up for election. Plaintiffs pointed out that District 3 includes Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties, where the voting population is about 49 percent Black. U.S. Census data shows that 33 percent of the state’s population is Black, and Black people account for 29 percent of the entire voting population.

McCorkle said the Public Service Commission made decisions during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately impacted Black Georgians, including resuming delinquency shut-offs in the middle of the crisis.

“To make matters worse, the Public Service Commission has just decided to charge Georgia Power customers for the cost they incurred due to COVID,” she said. “All of these things are attacking the Black community. They’re landing on a Black community. They’re harming us. It’s a few dollars here, $10 here, but it all adds up. Our communities are already struggling, and these decisions have just continued to add weights onto their shoulders.”

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