ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge ruled Friday that Georgia's statewide election of its five public service commissioners illegally dilutes Black voting power, ordering the state to not prepare ballots for two races that had been scheduled in November.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg, if it stands, would mean that state lawmakers would have to draw single-member districts for the body that regulates Georgia Power Co. and other other utilities, subject to court approval. An election would be held later.
However, higher federal courts have shown significant skepticism about Voting Rights Act litigation in recent years, and the state could appeal. It could also argue that the ruling is too close to the election and seek a delay, an issue that Grimsberg considered and rejected in his opinion.
Attorney General Chris Carr's office said it was reviewing the decision, while the Public Service Commission declined comment. Plaintiffs said 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. Nico Martinez, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called it "one of the most important decisions to advance voting rights in a generation.”
Grimberg had telegraphed his ruling months ago, finding at an earlier state of the lawsuit that statewide elections probably illegally diluted Black votes. The lawsuit was brought by leaders of the NAACP, Georgia Conservation Voters and Black Voters Matter.
At-large voting that preserves white control has long been subject to legal attack, but most cases have focused on at-large voting in local elections. But Grimberg said the same rules apply to statewide elections, rejecting 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 elections would impermissibly change Georgia's form of government.
Until now, commissioners have been elected statewide but 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. However, 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 judge noted that white Republican Chuck Eaton beat Black Democratic incumbent David Burgess in a 2006 runoff in which Eaton won statewide but Burgess would have won if only voters in the Atlanta-area district had voted. The judge also noted that Eaton would have lost reelection in 2012 and 2018 if only voters in the district had voted.
Grimberg ruled that the Black electorate is large enough and geographically compact enough to create at least one single-member district, that Black voters are cohesive and that racial bloc voting by the white majority defeats Black-preferred candidates in Georgia. Those are all key tests in a Voting Rights Act lawsuit.
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.
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.
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