Georgia Voters Bring Public Service Commission Elections Case to US Supreme Court 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Voters are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a case challenging Georgia’s at-large method for electing members to its Public Service Commission under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

In a cert petition filed March 25, Black voters argue that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals erred when it issued a ruling finding that Georgia’s at-large system for electing members to its Public Service Commission does not violate the Voting Rights Act. 

Black voters filed this lawsuit back in 2020 arguing that the system Georgia uses to elect candidates to its Public Service Commission — which is responsible for regulating public utilities in Georgia — dilutes Black voting power.

Georgia’s public service commissioners 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.”

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. However, there have not yet been any elections for the positions since before the lawsuit was filed despite two Republican members’ terms expiring in 2022. This month, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) announced that elections will not be held for the commission this year either due to the ongoing lawsuit. 

In a development that could further delay elections for new commissioners’, the Georgia Legislature last week sent a bill to add an additional two years to the six-year terms of commissioners on the all-Republican commission to Gov. Brian Kemp (R)‘s desk. 

After the district court determined that the commission elections violated the VRA, 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. 

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 the 11th Circuit misapplied the Purcell principle. However, elections for the Public Service Commission were not held in November 2022. 

Finally, the 11th Circuit issued a ruling in November 2023 on the merits of the appeal and held that Georgia can maintain the at-large method for Public Service Commission elections. 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 requires the court to replace the Legislature’s chosen electoral method. 

If embraced and affirmed by the nation’s high court, this reasoning that federalism preempts the VRA could drastically limit challenges to electoral methods and continue Republicans’ all-out assault on the Voting Rights Act. 

Now, Georgia voters are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. In their 158-page petition filed yesterday, the petitioners present two questions that ask the court to determine if voters can use Section 2 to challenge electoral methods and if the state’s desire to hold at-large elections are more important than Section 2. The nation’s highest court will now determine if it will resolve these questions and one key aspect of Section 2 hangs in the balance. 

Read the cert petition here. 

Learn more about the case here.

Learn more about the ongoing threats to the Voting Rights Act here.