A federal judge ruled on Friday that holding statewide elections for a Georgia utility regulatory body discriminates against Black voters and delayed the elections scheduled for November to a later date.
Steven Grimberg, the U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Georgia, said in the ruling that the statewide election for the state’s Public Service Commission, which oversees residents’ access to telecommunications, electric and natural gas services, unlawfully dilutes the votes of Black citizens.
Two seats on the five-member commission were scheduled to be up for election in November. Current state election law requires a candidate for a seat on the commission to live in one of the five districts they are running to represent, but voters from the entire state can vote for all five seats regardless of where they live.
Grimberg wrote that the election system for the commission violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s second section, which states that no qualification, standard, practice or procedure can be imposed by any state to deny citizens’ right to vote based on race or color.
The plaintiffs are Black voters in one of the districts where an election was set to take place in November. The ruling states that they testified that they have not been prevented from voting in Georgia because of their race, but that race plays a role in the election.
Experts testified that there is “strong evidence” of racial polarization in the elections and that Black and white voters are “cohesive” in the candidates they support. But because the number of white voters outnumbers the number of Black voters, the Black-preferred candidates do not win.
One expert said during the case that the candidate supported by white voters won 11 out of 11 times since the current state law went into effect, and another expert testified that only one Black candidate has ever been elected to the commission, despite Georgia’s large Black population.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that an attorney for the defendant, Brad Raffensperger, who oversees the election in his capacity as Georgia secretary of state, argued that Black voters have been able to fully participate in the political process. The attorney said Black-supported candidates not winning does not mean that the voting system is discriminatory.
The ruling states that the attorney for Raffensperger said during a preliminary hearing that the state would have the current incumbent commissioners running in the races “holdover” in their positions until a new election can be held.
Nicolas Martinez, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the court’s decision vindicates their argument that Georgia’s statewide election method for the commission unlawfully dilutes Black votes.
“This ruling immediately impacts how millions of Georgians will elect those powerful officials who determine how much everyday folks must pay for basic utilities,” he said. “It is one of the most important decisions to advance voting rights in a generation.”
This story was updated at 4:24 p.m.