Late on Friday, the United States Supreme Court issued a preliminary order siding with Black voters who had challenged Georgia’s method of electing members to the state’s public service commission.
The decision resolved a split among lower courts and provided a rare opportunity for the court’s conservative 6-3 majority to side with voters rather than state officials.
A federal district judge ruled earlier this month that the current voting system gives less weight to Black voters. Although each of the five commissioners serves a specific district, they are all elected in statewide races, which the ruling argues dilutes the influence of black voters. Judge Steven Grimberg was appointed to the bench by President Trump.
In response to a request from a group of voters challenging the current system, Grimberg postponed an election scheduled for November for two commissioners’ seats to give the state legislature time to create a new system for electing commissioners.
However, the federal 11th circuit court of appeals temporarily halted Grimberg’s ruling last week, citing the “Purcell principle,” which discourages courts from changing election rules immediately before an election.
Expert testimony that the current election system for the Georgia public service commission is biased against Black voters was enough for the Supreme Court to uphold the Grimberg ruling on Friday.
Community voting behavior expert and witness Bernard Fraga testified that statewide voting in Georgia allows the state’s white majority to drown out the votes of districts with a majority of Black residents.
Fraga argued in the ruling that minorities are disadvantaged because “elections are staggered, a minority group has less of an opportunity to concentrate its voting strength behind a candidate of choice.”
A former employee of the civil rights division at the US Department of Justice, Stephen Popick, was also cited in the ruling for his expert testimony.
According to his research on voting patterns in Georgia between 2012 and 2020, “voter polarization” existed between Black and white voters, with the former consistently supporting the winning candidate despite the fact that Black voters united behind a single candidate.
Nico Martinez, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Guardian on Saturday that he is “confident the district court’s well-reasoned decision will ultimately be upheld” as the case continues to play out in the 11th circuit, which could still block Grimberg’s ruling on other grounds, clearing the way again for the November election date.
Martinez, a partner at Bartlit Beck, commented, “We are pleased that the supreme court took this important step to ensure that this November’s [public service commission] elections are not held using a method that unlawfully dilutes the votes of millions of Black citizens in Georgia.”
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