A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday aims to change how commissioners who regulate Georgia public utilities are elected because, it claims, the statewide campaign system is stacked against Black voters, leaving their interests unprotected in rate cases for phone service, electricity and other utilities.
The Public Service Commission now includes five white Republicans, and only one African American has served on the commission since it moved to statewide at-large elections in 1906, the lawsuit said. The suit calls for an end to Georgia’s statewide elections for commissioners who represent regional districts once they’re seated.
Commissioners have repeatedly failed to vote in the best interest of many Black Georgians, said Brionté McCorkle with Georgia Conservation Voters and one of the plaintiffs at a Tuesday news conference outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta.
Last year’s approval of a $1.8 billion rate increase for Georgia Power and this summer’s lifting of a moratorium on disconnecting electric service during the pandemic are two examples of commission actions that disregard the circumstances of Black Georgians, McCorkle said.
“These series of actions are egregious and consistently harm Black voters,” McCorkle said. “I’m happy to be taking action today for fair and adequate representation on the Public Service Commission.”
McCorkle is joined by three other Black voters who filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court. Although Black voters make up more than 30% of the state’s registered voters, the lawsuit says their voting power is diluted by the statewide voting system used to elect commissioners.
The lawsuit lists Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as the defendant since he oversees state elections. Commissioners are not listed as a party.
The lawsuit says Georgia’s system to elect PSC commissioners is a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The plaintiffs are McCorkle, Georgia NAACP president James Woodall, Atlanta chapter president Richard Rose, and Wanda Mosley, senior coordinator for Black Voters Matter.
The plaintiffs said they are not representing their respective organizations in the lawsuit.
Two PSC commissioners’ seats are up for reelection in November, although an attorney for the plaintiffs said he doesn’t expect the lawsuit will affect this year’s races.
Republican Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald faces Democrat Daniel Blackman and Libertarian Nathan Wilson, and Republican Commissioner Jason Shaw faces Democrat Robert Bryan and Libertarian Elizabeth Melton.
Commissioners are required to live in one of five districts that are redrawn every decade by the Legislature. The lawsuit proposes that one of the districts should be drawn to have a majority Black population.
“Elections for members of the Public Service Commission feature at least three voting practices that enhance the opportunity for discrimination against African Americans,” the lawsuit said. “These include staggered terms, a majority-vote requirement, and unusually large voting districts.”
Public Service Commission spokesman Tom Krause said that commissioners make decisions they feel are fair to all Georgians while ensuring they have reliable utility service.
For instance, the commission recently hashed out a monthly installment payment plan with Georgia Power that eliminates unpaid late fees for severely delinquent customers.
“Since 1998, Commissioners have been required by the General Assembly to live in specific districts but are still elected statewide,” Krause said. “None of the Commissioners has a say in how he or she is to be elected.”
But Mosley said a PSC decision to allow Georgia Power to pass along costs for COVID-19 protective equipment is just the latest example of how the board’s decisions can hit the bank accounts of Black people.
A geographic district carved out of parts of the state with large Black populations can protect common interests, she said.
For example, many residents of south and coastal Georgia are reeling from the economic fallout of the pandemic and from living in areas walloped by natural disasters, Mosley said.
“Those folks deserve to have their voices and their votes counted and have the same weight as everybody else in the state,” she said.