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Why the racial makeup of utility commissions could be a matter of life and death

An activist sued Georgia in 2020 to change the way utility regulators are elected, arguing the state's at-large voting system illegally dilutes the voting power of Black residents. (Canva)

By Kristi E. Swartz for Floodlight and Capital B

As the new head of a group of conservation voters in Georgia, Brionté McCorkle wanted to sit down with regulators who oversee the state’s utilities to talk about carbon emissions. But when she got a meeting with one of those regulators, she realized there were deeper problems. The regulator she spoke with didn’t understand the people he served.

While 40% of the state’s households earn less than $40,000 a year, the regulator couldn’t understand why some of his constituents don’t have enough money to pay their power bills. McCorkle understood all too well. Growing up, her grandmother would turn off the lights at night to save money. She remembers her grandmother saying, “We’re going to sit in the dark tonight.”

McCorkle said the public service commissioner she met with “was wildly out of touch” with 40% of the state’s population.

The demographics of utility regulators and how they are elected matters, say McCorkle and others, because majority-white utility commissions have historically resulted in inequitable outcomes for Black and other minority communities. With the increasing dangers of climate change, and billions of dollars from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act targeted to address those dangers, it could be a matter of life and death where those funds — many of which will be directed by utility commissions — go. The existing disparities could worsen if the system isn’t fixed, says McCorkle, who sued Georgia to change the way utility regulators are elected.

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