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Lawsuit alleges Georgia dilutes Black voting power for utility commission

Maggie Lee
Richard Rose at a podium RIchard Rose and other plaintiffs, pictured at a July 14 press conference outside Atlanta's federal courthouse. Credit: Maggie Lee

By Maggie Lee

A new lawsuit alleges that Georgia’s unusual method of electing utility regulators causes harm to Black residents.

Georgia’s method of electing Public Service Commission members on a statewide ballot amounts to a policy of racial oppression, said Richard Rose. Rose is president of the Atlanta NAACP, but in his personal capacity as a voter, he’s the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against Georgia’s top election official.

The five-member Georgia Public Service commission doesn’t reflect Georgia’s diversity in race (or party, for that matter.) Though each commissioner comes from a district, each commissioner is elected statewide. And voters in majority-white, conservative-leaning Georgia have consistently elected white conservatives to the commission. Black voters, say the plaintiffs, are thus illegally denied a chance to choose a candidate.

Plaintiff Brionté McCorkle listed some of the actions the PSC has taken recently: a 2019 rate hike, allowing utility shut-offs to resume in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic that’s particularly devastated the Black community, and allowing Georgia Power to charge customers for company personal protective equipment.

She called those just one “series of actions that are egregious, that consistently harm black voters.”

Utilities like Georgia Power are allowed geographic monopolies and guaranteed profits — but in return they have to accept rate regulation and they have to keep the power plants running.

Commissioner Tim Echols is one of the five public service commissioners. He said that the state Legislature sets the rules for the PSC and the Legislature’s collective voice is the only one that matters. And he listed some more details of the PSC’s recent policy changes.

“Keeping the moratorium [on shut-offs] in place would result in higher debt for the most needy customers,” Echols said.  “There are government and private resources, including Project Share, for those who still can’t pay their utility bills — plus we instructed Georgia Power to give people up to six months to pay their past-due balances.”

Neither the commissioners nor the commission are defendants in the lawsuit. The only named defendant is Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in his professional capacity.

Raffensperger’s office did not have an immediate comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

Besides Rose and McCorklé, who is executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters, the other plaintiffs are Wanda Mosley, Georgia leader of Black Voters Matter and James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP. All are suing as individual voters, not on behalf of their organizations.

Since 1907, five PSC members have been elected statewide. Starting in 2000, each PSC seat was assigned to one of five districts.

The more familiar model is how the state House and Senate and picked. A district votes for their representatives and senators and the resulting group comes closer to mirroring Georgians: a mix of Black and White, liberal and conservative.

The suit asks the court to declare that the PSC election method dilutes Black voting strength in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. They ask the court to order Raffensperger not to administer any further elections under the current system.

Echols said he plans to run for his seat again in 2022 even if the election method is changed.

Indeed, 2022 is probably the earliest anything could change. There are two PSC seats on the ballot this fall, but even the defendants admit any court-ordered change by then would be extraordinary.

Documents:

July 14, 2020 initial complaint in Rose et. al. vs. Raffensperger

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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