For The Record

Feds side with Black voters in suit that says rights violated by at-large PSC elections

By: - July 28, 2021 8:47 pm

Brionté McCorkle, a plaintiff and the executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters, said she is grateful that the U.S. Department of Justice waded into a lawsuit that challenges how Georgia elects its utility regulators. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

The U.S. Department of Justice has waded into a voting rights lawsuit that challenges how Georgia elects its utility regulators.

“This case presents important questions regarding enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” wrote Acting U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Georgia Kurt R. Erskine in the agency’s Wednesday filing.

The filing zeroed in on parts of the state’s arguments that “incorrectly interpret Section 2.”

The original lawsuit, filed last summer, claims the Georgia Public Service Commission’s statewide at-large districts dilute the voting strength of the state’s Black residents and that the state should move to regional districts represented by one commissioner.

Only one Black member has ever been elected to serve on the five-member commission since it moved to the current system, according to the lawsuit.

All five seats are held by Republican commissioners, who were all white until recently. Gov. Brian Kemp this month appointed Fitz Johnson, who is Black, to replace Chuck Eaton after the governor appointed Eaton to become a superior court judge in Atlanta.

The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Black voters living in Fulton County, which Eaton represented. In 2018, Eaton narrowly won another six-year term by about 2 percentage points statewide, but he trailed overwhelmingly in the four counties – Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Rockdale – he represented.

The lawsuit was filed against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who is the state’s top election official. A spokesman for Raffensperger did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment late Wednesday.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr filed a motion for summary judgment on Raffensperger’s behalf earlier this month, asking the judge to rule in the secretary of state’s favor.

Carr argued the system does not harm the state’s Black voters, writing “the only evidence of an injury is to Plaintiffs’ partisan interests, not to the weight of their votes.”

He also pointed to the outcomes of last year’s presidential election and the pair of U.S. Senate runoffs in January to bolster the state’s argument that Black-preferred candidates can win statewide contests. U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock became the Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator.

The Justice Department, though, is urging the judge to reject the state’s argument.

“Plaintiffs here claim that, in conjunction with white bloc voting, the method of election (at-large) and district lines (a single voting district) that Georgia uses to elect the members of its Public Service Commission impermissibly dilutes black voting strength, infringing plaintiffs’ opportunity to elect their preferred candidates and thereby abridging their right to vote,” according to the agency’s filing. “Such harm is precisely the type against which Section 2 protects …”

The Justice Department’s intervention – which came the same day Carr made a move to have the federal agency’s lawsuit challenging Georgia’s election law tossed out – was a welcome sight to the plaintiffs.

“Overall, I commend Attorney General Merrick Garland and his team for taking bold action to ensure that Georgians are adequately represented on this important commission,” said Brionté McCorkle, a plaintiff and the executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters.

“This lawsuit is a critical step towards protecting our democracy and ensuring that all Georgians, and especially black Georgians, have a voice in the decisions being made about power bills, our energy future, broadband access and more.”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.