ATLANTA (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday ordered the statewide election for two public service commissioners in Georgia to be reset to the November election, just a week after a federal judge postponed the election after finding that the election of five commissioners across the country had illegally diluted Black votes.
A three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the lower court’s order following a state appeal that followed a US Supreme Court ruling that judges should not order changes shortly before elections.
The 2-1 split came at the state’s deadline for closing ballots before the election, allowing ample time to print the ballots before the first ballots are mailed to out-of-state voters in late September.
District 3 Commissioner Fitz Johnson and District 2 Commissioner Tim Echols, both Republicans, are seeking re-election to a six-year term. Johnson is challenged by Democrat Shelia Edwards while Echols meets Democrat Patty Durand and Libertarian Colin McKinney.
District Judges Robert Luck and Adalberto Jordan found that U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg’s decision came too close to election that it is an improper fundamental change in the state’s electoral system for Johnson and Echols to serve beyond the end of their terms on the commission remain, and so on Grimberg had to issue his decision not only before the ballot printing deadline, but also well in advance “to allow for meaningful appeal scrutiny.”
Friday’s decision is not the 11th Circuit’s final say on Grimberg’s decision, just a postponement. Luck and Jordan clearly anticipate the plaintiffs will appeal to the nation’s highest court, writing in a brief statement that “if we are wrong on this point, the Supreme Court can tell us so.”
District Judge Robin Rosenbaum disagreed, saying the other judges would extend the doctrine, which precludes changes near an election, to a whole new category of cases without “adequate explanation”. She said the majority are actually letting the state conduct an election under a system that a judge has already found unlawfully discriminatory.
“If we find (which I think is likely) that the current system violates the Voting Rights Act, then black Georgians will be stuck in Districts 2 and 3 – for the next six years, until 2029 – with commissioners they don’t fill.” had a role in the selection,” wrote Rosenbaum.
Grimberg broke new ground when he found that statewide elections violated the Voting Rights Act, although his decision depended on Georgia’s decision to allow candidates to live in certain counties and run nationwide. He found that illegally disabled Blacks preferred candidates and that such candidates would have a better chance of winning if only voters in one district voted on each candidate, which would make it possible to draw at least one Black-majority district.
Attorney General Chris Carr appealed, arguing that Grimberg made a fundamental error in his decision by ending that race and not allowing Democrat partisanship to defeat black voters’ preferred candidates. It also says the judge went too far in concluding that only state law, not the state constitution, requires statewide elections. Grimberg examined and rejected both of these arguments.
Plaintiffs have said the county election would bring to the fore the concerns of black voters, including those on lower incomes who pay high utility bills. The lawsuit was filed by leaders of the NAACP, Georgia Conservation Voters and Black Voters Matter.
The commission regulates Georgia Power Co. and other utilities, determining how much companies can bill millions of rate payers.
If Grimberg’s ruling stands, state legislatures would have to sign one-member counties for the commission.
Another federal judge earlier this year allowed Georgia’s congressional elections to be held in redrawn districts, despite a preliminary finding that redrawing the districts would likely illegally harm black voters.
Supporters of voting rights have rejected decisions saying allowing elections is most important, saying it allows states to proceed with illegal elections and raising fears the US Supreme Court will undermine the part of the voting rights law that allowing people to win lawsuits against district lines and other voting provisions.
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