Judge weighs whether Georgia PSC elections are discriminatory

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.

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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.

White candidates almost always win Public Service Commission races

A federal judge deciding whether statewide elections for the Georgia Public Service Commission discriminate against Black voters said in court Friday that he’s struggling with whether race or politics explain why almost all winning candidates are white.

Just one Black candidate has ever won an election to the Public Service Commission in its 143-year history, when Democrat David Burgess won in 2000 after being appointed to the post.

A five-day trial concluded Friday after U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg heard testimony from plaintiffs who allege Georgia’s system of statewide elections for all five commissioners deny Black voters an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates. Over 30% of Georgia voters are Black, but they’re always outnumbered by the state’s white majority that tends to elect Republicans.

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Wanda Mosley of Black Voters Matter speaks in 2020 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 of Black Voters Matter speaks in 2020 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

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Wanda Mosley of Black Voters Matter speaks in 2020 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

An attorney for the plaintiffs told Grimberg that Georgia’s long history of electing white candidates shows that the statewide voting method denies representation for Black voters on the commission that regulates electricity and natural gas prices.

“It’s footprints in the snow that what’s going on is on account of race,” the attorney, Bryan Sells, said in his closing argument. “Partisanship doesn’t explain the evidence in this case, but race does.”

Grimberg asked each side how they can separate discrimination from partisan preferences when Republicans have held statewide majorities for most of the past 20 years, resulting in the election of white GOP candidates over Black Democrats.

“This is what I’m struggling with,” Grimberg said.

Commission members must live in one of five districts, but voters from across the entire state are allowed to vote for all commission seats.

ExploreMessages reveal alleged effort to draw Democrat out of Georgia PSC district

An attorney for the state, Bryan Tyson, said Black voters have been able to participate in the political process, but just because their candidates haven’t won doesn’t mean the voting system is discriminatory.

“How people vote is driven more by party than by race,” Tyson said. “No one has been prohibited from voting based on race.”

Black candidates can win statewide elections in Georgia, Tyson said, though they haven’t been successful when running for the Public Service Commission.

Over the past 22 years, four Black candidates have won statewide non-judicial elections: U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, former Attorney General Thurbert Baker, former Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond and Burgess, all Democrats. Governors have appointed two Black members to the Public Service Commission, including a current commissioner who is running for election this year, Republican Fitz Johnson.

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

Credit: Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

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

Credit: Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

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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

The lawsuit is based on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racially discriminatory voting laws. The plaintiffs are members of the NAACP, Black Voters Matter and Georgia Conservation Voters.

Across the country, Georgia and six other states elect utility regulators statewide, while five states hold elections for geographic districts. In most states, members of regulatory bodies are chosen by governors or legislatures.

If Grimberg ordered district elections in Georgia under a new map approved by the General Assembly this year, four districts would 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.

Grimberg could issue a ruling before mid-August, when election officials face a deadline to finalize ballots before the November election.