WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last week, a three-judge panel on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Georgia can continue to hold at-large elections for its Public Service Commission despite a lower court finding that the elections dilute the voting power of Black voters.
This decision — authored by a Trump-appointed judge and joined by two Republican-appointed judges — reversed a prior decision finding that Georgia’s method of holding elections for its Public Service Commission violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
The Public Service Commission is responsible for regulating public utilities in Georgia and is elected by an at-large method, which means that voters do not elect a representative to represent a certain district but rather elect commissioners for the entire state.
Black voters filed a lawsuit in July 2020 arguing that this system dilutes Black voting power. In August 2022, a federal district court judge determined that the Public Service Commission’s at-large elections violated Section 2 of the VRA and delayed the 2022 elections for the commission.
After the district court determined that the commission elections violated the VRA, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit. The 11th Circuit then paused the district court’s order while the appeal was litigated citing the Purcell principle, the idea that courts should not change voting or election rules too close to an election in order to avoid confusion for voters and election officials alike.
In a notable dissent, Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum wrote that by “relying on the Purcell principle, the Majority obviates the need to engage with the district court’s fact-bound analysis and its holding that Georgia’s status quo impairs Black Georgians’ right to vote.”
The plaintiffs filed an emergency application in the U.S. Supreme Court’s “shadow docket” requesting that the Court void the 11th Circuit’s decision to pause the district court’s ruling. In August 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court voided the 11th Circuit’s pause, holding that 11th Circuit misapplied the Purcell principle. However, elections for the Public Service Commission were not held in November 2022.
After the 2022 midterms, litigation continued in the 11th Circuit. The U.S. Department of Justice joined the case as a “friend of the court” and argued that “Section 2 of the VRA prohibits electoral devices that have the effect of diluting minority voters power in jurisdictions where race plays an outsized role in the political process.”
Finally, the 11th Circuit issued a ruling last week on the merits of the appeal. In its opinion, the court held that the plaintiffs failed to provide a viable remedy to the Section 2 violation and that the plaintiffs’ request to adopt a new electoral method “strains both federalism and Section 2 to the breaking point” because the plaintiffs are asking the court to replace the Legislature’s chosen electoral method. If embraced, this reasoning that federalism preempts the VRA could drastically limit challenges to electoral methods and once again chip away at a crucial part of the VRA.
Redistricting and electoral methods can have major impacts on voters’ everyday lives. As the Savannah Morning News explained in 2022, the commission plays an important part in people’s daily lives as “it determines how much Georgia Power customers pay for electricity, and where that electricity comes from.” This decision is a loss for Black voters in Georgia who are not adequately represented by the Georgia Public Services Commission’s at-large elections.