Another Georgia election law ends up in the courts
Just days ago, a federal court handed down its decision on the case—agreeing with the plaintiffs and throwing the two coming elections into limbo. Rose v. Raffensperger promises to be mired in a complex web of appeals, but however it is resolved, the courts need to do it quickly so as not to confuse voters.
Originally established in 1879 as the Railroad Commission of Georgia, the commission has evolved and expanded its scope. “In 1922, the Legislature changed the name of the Railroad Commission to the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to reflect the increasing variety of services and utilities included under the Commission’s jurisdiction,” according to the PSC’s website.
Today, “the Georgia Public Service Commission has exclusive power to decide what are fair and reasonable rates for services under its jurisdiction,” including those stemming from the electricity, natural gas and telecommunications industries. Over time, the commission has grown incredibly powerful and is composed of five commissioners who are elected on a statewide basis, but beginning in 1998, they were required to live in regional districts. This is a point of contention in Rose v. Raffensperger.
“Georgia’s system of statewide elections for the commissioners denies Black voters an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates. While nearly one-third of Georgia voters are Black, they’re always outnumbered by the state’s white majority that tends to elect Republicans,” reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).
In fact, there have only been two Black public service commissioners in Georgia’s history—David Burgess, who was originally appointed by former Gov. Roy Barnes (D), and Fitz Johnson, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R).
The plaintiffs make a fair point. Statewide elections—rather than district elections—can have a way of “diluting” minority voices, and it seems odd to assign regional districts to public service commissioners but to elect them on an at-large basis. Given these realities and citing the Voting Rights Act (VRA), a federal court judge ruled that Georgia must end statewide elections for PSC races and even postponed the two PSC elections slated for November.
“While delaying elections for Districts 2 and 3 until a later date will regrettably cause disruption to the candidates currently running for those offices, the court does not find that such disruption outweighs the important VRA interests that are implicated,” the judge ruled. This doesn’t necessarily mean that lawmakers originally created the PSC election law in an effort to silence Black votes, but that isn’t the point in the eyes of the law. “It is the result of the challenged practice—not the intent behind it—that matter[s],” wrote the presiding judge.
It remains to be seen whether this ruling will ultimately stand. Georgia Attorney General (AG) Chris Carr is challenging it, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has since blocked the ruling from going into effect before the November elections. However, this is far from the end of the matter. It could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which would ensure that it becomes a drawn-out process, and the timing is terrible.
The November elections are fast approaching, and this puts two PSC elections in limbo, which is a bit of a disservice to incumbents and challengers alike. Incumbent Tim Echols (R) is running against two challengers: Democrat Patty Durand and Libertarian Colin McKinney; and incumbent Fitz Johnson (R) is facing off against Democrat Shelia Edwards. Now, it isn’t clear what will happen with these races or how these campaigns should proceed.
This ruling has created uncertainty not only for candidates, but also voters, which could leave them frustrated. As it stands, many on the political left and right are already suspicious of elections thanks to recent events. Georgia’s voting law of 2021 drew loud rebukes from Democrats, and the contested 2020 elections resulted in claims that the general election was stolen, which appear to have depressed voter turnout for the subsequent run-offs. “Over 752,000 Georgia voters who cast ballots in the presidential election didn’t show up again for the runoffs,” wrote the AJC.
The PSC election lawsuit, while not at the forefront of many voters’ minds, could end up being problematic if it becomes a prolonged legal affair. This could lead to further confusion that might discourage voter turnout. In whatever way the suit is settled, it should be expedited to avoid as much uncertainty as possible.