How a rare voting rights win took two races off Georgia ballots

Incumbent Republicans keep power on Public Service Commission for now
Plant Scherer, a Georgia Power plant, is seen from the air using a drone on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, near Juliette. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

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Plant Scherer, a Georgia Power plant, is seen from the air using a drone on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, near Juliette. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

An unusual voting rights victory is delaying elections for Georgia’s utility regulators until next year, allowing the Republican-led General Assembly to make new rules for Public Service Commission elections but giving Democrats a better chance to break the GOP’s stranglehold on the panel.

The outcome is the result of a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court after a judge ruled that the election couldn’t go on under Georgia’s system of allowing all voters to choose members of the PSC.

The case highlighted racial disparities on the bureaucratic but important board that sets electricity and natural gas rates for much of the state. In its 143-year history, just one Black commissioner has won election in a state where white voters always outnumber other races.

While not as high-profile as other statewide offices, votes taken by the Public Service Commission directly impact the lives of many Georgians. The PSC determines how much the state’s electricity costs customers and how much of it comes from fossil fuels or renewable sources.

Wanda Mosley of Black Voters Matter speaks Tuesday outside the Richard Russell B. Federal Building in Atlanta about a lawsuit seeking changes to elections to the Georgia Public Service Commission. Mosley is surrounded by other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Georgia NAACP President James Woodall and Briont McCorkle of Georgia Conservation Voters. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

Wanda Mosley, national field director for Black Voters Matter, said the all-Republican PSC has failed to adequately represent Georgians.

She pointed to the panel’s decision early in the coronavirus pandemic, in July 2020, to lift a moratorium on disconnecting homes for nonpayment of power bills.

“When decisions are made around issues like ending the moratorium on shut-offs, that’s an example of when representation really matters,” said Mosley, a plaintiff in the lawsuit to overturn how PSC members are elected. “Someone who had experience with interruptions in power multiple times growing up would be more sympathetic.”

Voting Rights Act in jeopardy

The effort to change the way Georgia elects Public Service Commission members started with a lawsuit filed two years ago, leading to a trial this summer and a ruling by a federal judge that statewide elections discriminated against Black voters.

PSC members are currently required to live in one of five districts, but every Georgia voter gets to cast a ballot for each seat, regardless of which district they live in.

As a result, the voting strength of Black voters was diluted in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to the decision by U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg, who was nominated by Republican President Donald Trump. The Voting Rights Act prohibits racially discriminatory voting laws.

The case moved quickly through the appellate courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case on Friday.

“It is unusual to see the Supreme Court these days siding with a voting rights plaintiff on anything, but I wouldn’t over-read into the actual ruling in this case,” said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at UCLA. “While this is a victory for the plaintiffs for the time being, within a few years, the court may rework (the Voting Rights Act), and nobody really knows what that might look like.”

The Georgia General Assembly voted to approve new Public Service Commission districts on March 4, 2022.

Credit: Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

Credit: Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

Attorneys for the state argued that the case was more about politics than race.

“They don’t like the decisions the Public Service Commission is making … so they would like to get a candidate on the PSC who agrees with them,” Bryan Tyson, a lawyer who defended Georgia’s election method, said during closing arguments in July. “Plaintiffs have been able to fully participate in the political process.”

Black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats in Georgia elections; a majority of whites support Republicans. White voters are the largest voting population in Georgia, and GOP candidates have won all PSC seats for years.

Elections for the two PSC seats that were going to be on the ballot in November now won’t be held until special elections next year, after the Georgia General Assembly has an opportunity to revise how commissioners are elected and possibly redraw the districts they run in.

Incumbent Republican Commissioners Tim Echols and Fitz Johnson — who were up for election — will continue to serve in their seats even after their terms expire this year. Johnson, who is Black, was appointed to the PSC by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp last year.

Just a day before learning that the PSC races would be delayed, Patty Durand, a Democratic candidate, secured victory in her own court challenge to residency requirements that allowed her to run.

Durand lamented the election’s postponement but said she hopes the case will result in a new system that benefits Georgians.

“While I’m disappointed that I won’t be facing my opponent this November, this decision is good for Georgia because it ends decades of embedded racism in the PSC election process,” Durand said.

Echols said he plans to run for reelection next year no matter what happens in the courts or the General Assembly. He would have faced Durand and Libertarian Colin McKinney this year.

“Under my 12 years of leadership at the PSC, Georgia has become a national leader in solar, electric vehicles and energy innovation,” Echols said. “I love serving the people of Georgia and intend to seek reelection, regardless of how the state map is divided.”

Shelia Edwards, the Democrat running against Johnson, called the drama around the election a “roller coaster,” but she praised the voting rights fight, which she said was about something bigger than any one candidate.

“I am pleased that a system that has long disenfranchised voters like me may finally be changed,” Edwards said.

Johnson declined a request for comment.

At-large elections in doubt

The commission has always been elected statewide, but only in recent years were its members required to live in specific districts under a law passed in 1998 by the General Assembly, which was controlled by Democrats at the time. The change was made, in part, to ensure at least one commissioner came from South Georgia.

Even if upcoming PSC elections are held by districts rather than statewide, Democrats might not make significant gains.

Under the current PSC maps, four districts have white majorities. However, those majorities are small in three of those districts, making up between 52% and 54% of the population, according to the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office. If, as expected, Republicans retain control of the General Assembly next year, they could redraw the districts to make them more favorable to GOP candidates.

The Georgia Public Service Commission is pictured in its hearing room. From left: Commissioners Fitz Johnson, Tim Echols, Tricia Pridemore, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and Jason Shaw. (handout)

Credit: File

Credit: File

The election cancellations come as the PSC is making several decisions that will affect Georgians for years to come.

Earlier this summer, the commission unanimously approved Georgia Power’s roadmap for generating electricity over the next two decades. Under the plan, the company is set to dramatically expand its reliance on solar power. But to the dismay of many environmental groups, it is also doubling down on natural gas generation, locking in more emissions of the greenhouse gases that scientists say are causing climate change.

Next month, Georgia Power will also return to the commission seeking approval of new electricity rates.

The company has proposed rate hikes that would increase the average household’s monthly bill by $14.32 starting next year, for a total average annual increase of nearly $172. The company says the higher rates are needed to cover the costs of modernizing its grid, transitioning away from fossil fuels and improving customer service.

And then there is the issue of the long-delayed nuclear power units at Plant Vogtle and how much customers will have to pay for them.

Even though the units are not complete yet, Georgia Power customers are paying for them in their monthly bills. But rates could climb even higher in the years to come, depending on how much of Vogtle’s cost overruns the PSC allows Georgia Power to recoup from customers. In an update earlier this year, Georgia Power estimated that the units’ cost could drive rates up by 10%.

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