November PSC elections off after U.S. Supreme Court ruling

State drops effort for an emergency stay that might have allowed two Public Service Commission elections to be held Nov. 8.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a filing Friday afternoon by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger seeking to end its push for an emergency stay, which might have allowed Public Service Commission elections to proceed this November.

November elections for two Georgia Public Service Commission seats will not be held after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated an appeals court decision in a voting rights case and the state dropped its push for a stay that may have kept the races on ballots this fall, citing the fast-approaching election.

The Supreme Court ruled that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta erred in its decision last week to allow November’s vote to go forward after a lower court judge ruled statewide elections for PSC members discriminate against Black voters.

The high court said the appeals court should review the case through the lens of a different legal framework and reconsider whether a stay, which would allow this fall’s elections to continue as planned, is appropriate.

But late in the day Friday, the state withdrew its motion for an emergency stay, which had asked the court to allow elections in the PSC races to be held as planned while the appeals case moves forward at the 11th circuit.

In its filing, attorneys representing Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — the state’s top elections official — said ballot printing for the Nov. 8 elections would start Monday and that pursuing the motion to stay risked jeopardizing its preparations.

“With preparations for the General Election ... well underway, it is time to end any uncertainties that threaten to disrupt the administration of Georgia’s elections and risk further confusing Georgia’s voters,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “While we will continue the State’s appeal of the merits of the order, no decision will be reached in time for November’s elections.”

The developments mean PSC Vice-Chairman Tim Echols and Commissioner Fitz Johnson, both Republicans, will continue to serve on the PSC until elections can be called for their seats, Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for Raffensperger’s office said.

Echols was set to face Democrat Patty Durand and Libertarian Colin McKinney in the District 2 race, while the District 3 contest would have pitted Johnson against the Democrat Shelia Edwards.

Hassinger added that the two incumbents will remain on the PSC even if the appeals case is not decided until next year.

The rulings are the latest legal drama surrounding the PSC and the requirements Georgia places on candidates for the commission.

The PSC’s five seats are voted on statewide, but candidates are required to live in one of five districts for 12 months prior to the general election.

On Thursday in a separate case in Fulton County Superior Court, Judge Melynee Leftridge ruled that Durand could stay in the District 2 race because it was unconstitutional to apply the residency requirements in her case. Durand’s lawyers had argued that Echols and Republican Chairman Tricia Pridemore coordinated with state lawmakers to draw Durand out of the new district boundaries.

Edwards, the District 3 PSC Democratic candidate, also fought off a challenge to her eligibility earlier this year.

Those legal victories in the state courts appear to be moot, at least for now.

The federal voting rights case that drew the Supreme Court’s attention Friday was delayed by the pandemic and went to trial in June.

The lawsuit centers on whether Georgia’s system of statewide elections for PSC commission seats dilutes the power of Black voters.

Nearly one-third of Georgia voters are Black, but the state’s white majority typically elects Republicans. Only one Black candidate has ever won a Public Service Commission election in the body’s 143-year history.

Attorneys for the state argued at trial in U.S. District Court that just because candidates preferred by Black voters haven’t won often, that doesn’t mean statewide elections are discriminatory.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case praised the high court’s decision.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court took this important step toward ensuring that this November’s PSC elections are not held using a method that unlawfully dilutes the votes of millions of Black citizens in Georgia,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Nico Martinez. “We look forward to presenting the merits of our case on appeal and are confident the district court’s well-reasoned decision will ultimately be upheld.”

- Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this report.