Georgia utility elections called off, leaving Republicans in office

Court inaction puts Public Service Commission elections on hold
All five members of the Georgia Public Service Commission will remain in office because this year's elections have been called off. State election officials say the delay is necessary because the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals never finalized its November ruling that upheld statewide elections to the panel, which oversees electricity and natural gas rates. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

All five members of the Georgia Public Service Commission will remain in office because this year's elections have been called off. State election officials say the delay is necessary because the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals never finalized its November ruling that upheld statewide elections to the panel, which oversees electricity and natural gas rates. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Elections for Georgia’s powerful utility regulators have been canceled again amid ongoing court battles, keeping a majority of the all-Republican board’s members in office after their terms expire.

The secretary of state’s office confirmed Tuesday that elections will be delayed indefinitely for the Public Service Commission, which oversees electricity and natural gas rates for much of the state. Candidates who planned to file paperwork this week to run for the PSC learned that they couldn’t.

The elections were called off because the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals never finalized its November ruling that statewide PSC elections comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in elections.

Until the case is resolved, a federal judge’s 2022 decision that at-large PSC elections illegally weaken Black Georgians’ voting strength remains in effect, preventing elections from being held under that structure.

Georgia’s majority-white voting population has always outnumbered its Black minority, leading to just one Black candidate winning election in the commission’s 145-year history.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Without an election, two commissioners whose six-year terms expired in 2022 will remain in office, and one whose term ends this year would also remain in office unless a special election is scheduled.

Robert Jones, a Democrat and former utility executive from Brookhaven, said he was ready to launch his campaign until he found out Monday he couldn’t run. Candidates for every other office, from Congress to county commissions, are filing paperwork to run this week.

“This doesn’t sit right with me. The citizens of the state have been denied the opportunity to vote on who their representative is and to evaluate who’s the most qualified candidate,” said Jones, who is Black.

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

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Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Jones would have challenged Fitz Johnson of metro Atlanta, who has held the seat since Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed him in 2021 but has never been elected. Johnson, the PSC’s only current Black commissioner, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

PSC elections were previously canceled in August 2022 because the judge ruled against allowing all Georgia voters to vote for candidates in all five geographic commission districts, regardless of where voters live in the state.

Commissioner Tim Echols of Hoschton said he only learned Tuesday that he wouldn’t have to run.

“I have been ready to face the voters since 2022, and I am ready to face them now,” Echols said.

A potential rival to Echols, Patty Durand, said Georgia voters deserve an opportunity to weigh in after the PSC repeatedly approved rate increases for Georgia Power’s nuclear, gas and coal projects.

“The PSC has been delivering blow after blow to Georgia ratepayers, giving Georgia Power billions of dollars with no elections for years,” said Durand, a Democrat and consultant on energy technology and climate change. “Every Georgia Power ratepayer is being affected.”

Commissioner Tricia Pridemore of Marietta, who was elected in 2018, also would have faced reelection this year.

The reason for the delay in the court case is unclear.

After a panel of three Republican judges on the 11th Circuit issued its ruling in November, an unnamed appeals court judge withheld making it official, according to court documents.

It’s possible that the 11th Circuit could reconsider the ruling or rehear the case before the full appeals court, said Bryan Sells, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s this unexplained delay,” Sells said. “But we’re in this for the long haul, and what matters, from my perspective, is that the next election is held under a system that does not dilute the Black voting strength in Georgia.”

Under Georgia law, PSC commissioners must live in particular districts to be eligible to run, but they’re elected to office statewide. That arrangement is why the board has remained entirely Republican in a state that is roughly evenly politically divided.

Even after the 11th Circuit eventually issues its decision, it’s unlikely there would be time to schedule special primaries followed by special elections this year, according to the secretary of state’s office.

That means voters might have to wait until 2025 to vote for PSC members — five years after the last election.