Supreme Court won’t take up Georgia dispute over ‘at-large’ elections and minority vote dilution

The Supreme Court won’t take up a case challenging Georgia’s system for electing its public utility board in a defeat for Black voters who argued the so-called “at-large” electoral system diluted their votes.

The justices’ refusal to get involved will potentially make it much harder for challenges to such at-large systems of voting – that challengers call a “relic of Jim Crow” – to move forward in three states in the South.

The five members of Georgia’s Public Service Commission are each elected in staggered, statewide votes – a system that a federal judge said violated the Voting Rights Act. That ruling was then reversed by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, prompting the Black voters’ appeal to the Supreme Court.

In declining to take up the case Monday, the Supreme Court did not say anything on the merits of the arguments. However, the move leaves standing an 11th Circuit precedent that could affect other Voting Rights Act lawsuits brought in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, the three states the circuit covers.

The 11th Circuit concluded that the Black voters’ challenge failed because they did not put forward a remedy to cure the alleged vote dilution that would maintain the at-large system the state had chosen for the commission.

In their request, the voters noted that, if allowed to stand, the 11th Circuit precedent would make it more difficult, if not impossible, for other Voting Rights Act challenges to be brought against at-large election schemes, including challenges to local entities – like school boards – that use that method of election.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said in court briefs that the Supreme Court should not take up the case and stressed the “unique” nature of the commission, which is Georgia’s regulator for investor-owned utilities like power plants and telecommunications. His brief suggested that the appeals court did not foreclose challenges to other government entities that use at-large methods of election.

“In other cases, with other government bodies, the outcome may be different, and there is no reason to intervene here, specifically,” the Georgia brief said.

In an earlier phase of the case, the Supreme Court sided with the Black voters by restoring a trial court order that delayed the 2022 elections of two of the commission seats so that the legislature could create a new system of electing the commissioners.

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