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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
George Chidi in Atlanta

Supreme court declines to take up case alleging voter discrimination in Georgia

Georgia public service commission
The five Republican members of the Georgia public service commission in December last year. Photograph: Jeff Amy/AP

Georgia has not held an election for its powerful public service commission for more than two years while a lawsuit alleging that the way commissioners are elected disenfranchises Black voters plays out.

On Monday, the US supreme court declined to hear the case, leaving an appeals court ruling in place and putting an end to further delays.

The secretary of state put a hold on elections for the commission in 2022 while civil rights groups argued in court that the statewide elections disenfranchise Black voters.

The commission has five members, each elected to represent one of five districts in Georgia. But elections for each seat are decided in a statewide vote; though the commissioners must live in the district they represent, a voter in Savannah or Augusta has as much say over the commissioner representing Atlanta as a voter who lives there.

By saying it would not consider the plaintiffs’ appeal, the supreme court let stand an appellate court decision that said Georgia’s statewide elections for local districts on the rate-setting body is constitutional.

“Given other rulings on race and voting rights, the court is sending a clear signal that they’re not going to protect Black voters,” said Brionté McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters and a plaintiff in the case.

The US district judge Steven Grimberg ruled in August 2022 that Georgia’s election structure for the commission unconstitutionally dilutes Black voting power, preventing Black voters in the metro Atlanta district from electing the candidate of their choice, and ordered Georgia elections officials to tabulate votes by district. A three-judge panel of the 11th US circuit court of appeals reversed that decision in November last year, ruling that Georgia has a reasonable policy interest in avoiding provincialism in public utilities regulation.

The secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, removed the public service commission races from Georgia’s ballots after the 2022 ruling that stayed them. Even though the terms of office for commissioners Tim Echols and Fitz Johnson – an appointee who has not yet stood for election – ended in January 2023, without an election to decide their successors, both remained in office. Commissioner Tricia Pridemore would have been up for election this year, but the election for her seat was also set aside pending appeals.

To address the delayed elections, Georgia legislators passed a law this year extending the six-year terms of Echols, Johnson and Pridemore. The law set special elections for Echols’ District 2 seat and Johnson’s District 3 seat at the same time as local municipal elections in November 2025.

The commission chairman, Tom Krause, deferred to the secretary of state’s office when asked for comment. Raffensperger’s office did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Georgia’s public service commission sets rates and establishes regulations for utilities – telecommunications, natural gas and electricity. The commission has repeatedly approved plans by Georgia Power to build Plant Vogtle – the first nuclear reactor constructed in the US in the last 30 years – over strident public opposition. Vogtle’s construction has come with delays and cost overruns that contributed to the 2017 bankruptcy of Westinghouse and are responsible for a 10% increase in electricity rates this year.

“We talk about how voters care about kitchen table issues,” McCorkle said. “There’s nothing more kitchen table than the power bill and how much you’re paying to keep the lights on.”

The high court passing up the appeal and allowing the lower court ruling to stand ends any chance for civil rights groups to have an election with local districts electing local leaders on the public service commission. But the answer hasn’t come in time to put commissioners before voters in a presidential election year, when turnout is likely to be the highest.

Patty Durand, who won the Democratic primary in 2022 for one of the five seats on the commission but has not yet appeared on a general election ballot because of the legal limbo, said the stakes of public service commission elections are high.

“When you lose access to electricity, you don’t just sit around the dark with candles and flashlights,” Durand said. “You lose access to all your food, because everything is in the refrigerator and freezer. If you’re a renter, you can be evicted. You probably will be. If you’re a parent, [social services] will take away your children. And if you’re elderly or sick, you can die without having the ability to cool your home.”

Rate-paying voters would have seen their bills jump this summer, just as primary elections would have been held, Durand said. The delay has allowed commissioners to approve projects like new coal-fired electrical capacity to serve AI-driven data center demands without having to face voters. Even one Democrat on the commission would have provided some pushback, she said.

“All they asked for is for the votes to count only in the district of which the commissioner represented,” Durand said. “That’s all they wanted.”

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