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Local News

Voting rights decision may curb push to diversify Georgia, Alabama utility commissions

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by Kristi Swartz, Georgia Recorder

Brionte´ McCorkle was “furious” when a federal appeals court ruled in late November that Georgia could keep its current method of electing its powerful utility regulators. She punched her kickboxing heavy bag so hard that it broke.

“I busted the bag, I was that mad,” she said.

But, McCorkle added, “We’re not going to let this go.”

McCorkle and three other Black voters from Fulton County have filed a motion to stay the appellate court’s ruling. Filed Dec. 7, the motion asks the appeals court to halt the effects of its own decision while the plaintiffs “ask the Supreme Court to clarify the important issues in this case.”

“Absent a stay, Georgia will proceed to conduct Public Service Commission elections using a statewide, at-large method that a federal court — following a week-long trial featuring more than a dozen witnesses — has found unlawfully dilutes the voting strength of millions of Black citizens,” the motion argues.

The appeals court’s earlier decision, which is binding in Florida, Alabama and Georgia, could block a likely voting rights challenge to the way Alabama chooses its historically white utility commissioners as well. 

“Everything about this case is precedent setting,” McCorkle said.

The four voters from Fulton County sued Georgia’s high-profile secretary of state in July 2020, arguing that the at-large selection of the state’s Public Service Commission illegally dilutes the voting power of Black voters, violating the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The system has resulted in inequitable outcomes for Black and other minority communities, the plaintiffs argued, including having just two Black PSC commissioners in the past 100 years. The five-member commission is elected in statewide partisan elections from geographic districts, serving staggered six-year terms. 

The voters who sued alleged the system dilutes the voting power of the roughly 30% of Georgia voters who identify as Black. They argued that the five PSC districts should include at least one with a majority of Black voters.

The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that the remedy requested by the plaintiffs — redrawing the five districts — went too far. The decision reversed a lower-court ruling that had halted Georgia’s 2022 election to fill two PSC seats. 

“Plaintiffs’ proposed remedy asks us to wade into uncharted territory,” the appeals court found. “Plaintiffs’ novel proposal is that we dismantle Georgia’s statewide PSC system and replace it with an entirely new districted system. But we have never gone this far.”

Who serves on the PSC is important, the plaintiffs say, because residents of color typically pay a higher percentage of their household budgets on power. They also suffer higher rates of asthma and other health issues caused by breathing polluted air, a wide range of studies show. 

In August 2022, a lower court agreed with the four voters, with the judge ordering the state not to prepare ballots for two commission races that November and calling for state lawmakers to redraw the single-member districts. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger appealed.

The 11th Circuit ruled the elections should continue, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, a move that Raffensperger did not fight. The high court sent the case back to the 11th Circuit, which reversed the original judge’s decision on Nov. 24 — late Friday afternoon the day after Thanksgiving.

The decision also came just days before the Georgia General Assembly started a seven-day special session to redraw Congressional and state House and Senate maps after a federal judge ordered more majority-Black districts.

The stay, if granted, would prevent Raffensperger from scheduling elections for the two commission seats. The plaintiffs argued that if the court does not grant their motion, a commissioner “elected by unlawful means” would remain in office until 2030. 

Noting that it has been 16 months since the lower court’s decision, “Waiting a few more months for … proceedings to resolve is hardly unfair,” the motion said.

Impact felt outside of Georgia

The appeals’ court’s late November decision dashed any hopes of having state lawmakers tackle new maps for the Public Service Commission any time soon. And the ruling has impacts on neighboring Alabama, also in the 11th Circuit, where customer advocates may seek a change in how its utility commissioners are elected.

Like Georgia, Alabama’s historically white utility regulators are elected statewide and have faced scrutiny for making decisions that have resulted in energy inequities: Residents of this relatively poor state pay among the nation’s highest utility bills.

“It does put a chilling effect on what can happen,” said Daniel Tait, chief executive officer of Energy Alabama, a nonprofit clean energy advocacy group based in Huntsville. 

In Alabama, utility regulators also are elected statewide. They have so-called “places” that are akin to districts but, unlike Georgia, there is no residence requirement. 

In an interview with Floodlight, Tait said should the plaintiffs in the Georgia case win, “there’s quite the potential of a similar challenge in Alabama.”

“We on the other side of the border have been watching,” he said, later adding, “The fight’s not over; we’ll see what happens if (the Georgia case) is further escalated to the Supreme Court.”

In the third state in the 11th Circuit, Florida, regulators are appointed by the governor after vetting by a legislative committee. Indeed, most states appoint their regulators in some form. Georgia is one of just 10 states where commissioners are elected and one of six where they are elected at large. 

The state is unique in that it is the only one where commissioners must live in a district, even though they don’t represent that area because voters choose them in statewide elections. “The districts don’t exist in other states,” McCorkle said. “If that district structure didn’t exist, I feel like we’d probably have less of a claim.”

McCorkle and the others argued that Georgia’s unique PSC election structure is the chief reason why in a state with the second-largest Black population in the United States, only two commissioners have been Black — and both were appointed to fill vacancies, not elected. 

What’s more, whoever wants to represent the district that has the most Georgia Power customers – majority Black Atlanta and Fulton County – is elected almost “entirely by people outside of Fulton County,” said Bryan Sells, a veteran civil rights lawyer who focuses on voting rights, election law and redistricting.

“There’s something wrong about that,” said Sells, who represents the plaintiffs in this case. “And it’s especially wrong if the difference is on racial lines, and that’s what’s going on here.”

Study: People of color poorly represented in Georgia

That people of color are underrepresented in Georgia stretches far beyond the PSC. Indeed, a November study from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law painted a dire picture of Georgia’s election process. 

It called out the state Legislature’s Republican majority, saying it “interfered in local map-drawing decisions in a manner that undermined minority representation.“ 

The study looked at 159 county commissions and their respective school boards. It found that while nearly 50% of the state’s population are people of color, they occupy only 27% of county commission seats and 29% county school board seats. 

The study authors blame in part Georgia’s broad use of countywide and districtwide local elections, “despite the long-standing academic consensus that at-large elections disadvantage minority voting power.”  

Would new districts change the outcome?

But not everyone thinks that changing the way the state’s regulators are elected would result in a different outcome. Much of it boils down to whether voters are paying attention — and who’s funding the campaigns. 

2012 Atlanta Journal Constitution analysis of Georgia Public Service Commission campaign contributions in the previous five years showed 70% came from electric companies and their lobbyists — whose bottom line depends directly on the commission’s decisions. The advocacy group Georgia PSC Accountability Project reports that current commissioners got between 55% and 86% of their campaign contributions from “companies and people that may profit from the agency’s decisions.”

Said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School: “If the status quo before was Georgia Power in an outsized role in picking these commissioners, nothing changes.” 

What’s more, most people don’t know who their member of Congress or state representative or senator is, let alone who their utility regulators are or what they do, said Paul Patterson, a utility analyst with Glenrock Associates LLC.

“You don’t have to have everybody engaged, but you do have to have a critical mass, otherwise lobbyists are the most engaged,” he said.

Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said even if marginalized groups of people don’t exactly know what the Public Service Commission is or does,  they do see the impact on their bills and on their health. 

“They may not directly know the jargon, but they do know what’s impacting them,” she said.

McCorkle said Georgia regulators should be more independent from the monopolies they regulate, for example, challenging Georgia Power’s plans to build more natural gas plants instead of renewable energy. 

The PSC should “move with the best interests of Georgia at heart, which are well beyond the profit motive that the commission currently only thinks (of),” she said.

This story appears through a Georgia Recorder partnership with Floodlight, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.