ATLANTA — In a significant victory for voting rights groups, a federal judge has ruled that the at-large method for electing Georgia's Public Service Commission dilutes Black votes and violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The ruling will immediately stop Georgia Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger from preparing ballots for the November elections that include the District 2 and District 3 races for the PSC.
It's not yet clear how the secretary will move forward with those elections.
In the May primaries, Republican Tim Echols and Democrat Patty Duran won the District 2 primaries, while Republican Fitz Johnson and Democrat Shelia Edwards won the District 3 primaries.
The PSC oversees Georgia Power and other state utilities. The lawsuit filed in 2020 argued that decisions such as the one to resume disconnecting power from homes - after the practice was suspended for the pandemic - disproportionately impacted Black Georgians, and had been made by a board with no Black members.
Commissioners have historically been elected in general statewide votes to six-year terms. The commissioners represent five districts where they must live but, crucially, unlike voting for races such as the state legislature or U.S. Congress, the commissioners are not elected strictly by the people who live in their district.
It is done with a statewide vote, and in theory they can easily win election without the support of the actual district they represent.
In the 140-plus-year history of the commission, that has resulted in only two Black board members - David Burgess, who became the first on an appointment from Gov. Roy Barnes in 1999, and Fitz Johnson, who was appointed to a vacant post last year by Gov. Brian Kemp.
The lawsuit argued that lack of representation was because the statewide votes for the commission diluted the voting power of Black Georgians.
A federal judge issued a ruling on Friday that agreed with those arguments.
"Since 1906, commissioners on the Public Service Commission for the State of Georgia have been elected on a statewide, at-large basis. Today, the Court finds that this method of election unlawfully dilutes the votes of Black citizens under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and must change," the District Court ruling in Atlanta stated.
A statement from the lawyers representing the group that had sued said: "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. 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.”
In addition to preventing the PSC races from appearing on the ballots in November, the ruling stated that Raffensperger cannot administer "any future elections for vacancies on the PSC using the statewide, at-large method; and from certifying the election of any PSC commissioner who is elected using such method."
This is a developing story. Check back often for new information.
Also download the 11Alive News app and sign up to receive alerts for the latest on this story and other breaking news in Atlanta and north Georgia.