Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in an effort to influence our preferences in the two Senate runoffs. Flying so far below the radar that it may have tunneled underground is yet another decision to be made on January 5. Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and Daniel Blackman are vying for a seat on the Public Service Commission. McDonald, once a powerful legislator and gubernatorial candidate, is the PSC’s senior member. Blackman, should he win, would become the only Democratic member and its second African American.
PSC campaigns raise little money and infrequently buy time on television. Rare is the Georgian who could name the five PSC members. Most Georgians probably do not know that the body has five members who represent districts but are voted on statewide.
Despite the scant attention given the PSC, its decisions affect every Georgian. The Commission oversees rate setting for utilities and regulates intrastate commerce. Among the most controversial PSC decisions has been its support of the two nuclear reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro.
Perhaps because of the near invisibility of PSC members, most general election runoffs have involved candidates for this body. Five of the eight general election runoffs held prior to 2020 determined PSC seats. Two of these involved McDonald and Chuck Eaton competed in another two. McDonald’s presence in this year’s runoff allows him to claim the title “King of the Runoffs” since he will have competed in three of the eleven general election runoffs held between 1992 and 2021. In 1998, McDonald won a non-partisan runoff and in 2008 he secured another term by defeating a Democrat. Republicans have won the four partisan contests.
A 2006 PSC runoff witnessed the defeat of the only African American to serve on the body. David Burgess (D) led in the general election with 48.8% of the vote. He fell to Chuck Eaton (R) in the runoff managing just 47.8%.
Voter participation invariably declines in general election runoffs. The drop off is especially pronounced when only a PSC contest appears on the ballot. In the 2006 general election, 2,036,114 voters expressed preferences in the PSC contest that Burgess led. A month later when Eaton defeated Burgess only 215,092 voters showed up, a drop off of almost 90%. The 1998 nonpartisan runoff saw only 8.8% of the turnout compared with a month earlier. In 2018 the runoff between Eaton and Lindy Miller (D) accompanied the Secretary of State contest between Brad Raffensperger and John Barrow. Despite there being two contests on the runoff ballot, turnout in the PSC contest fell by 62%.
This year’s runoff features a replay of the 2014 contest. Six years ago, McDonald defeated Daniel Blackman easily, 53.4% to 41.7%. That McDonald failed to secure a majority this year is yet another indication of the declining support for Republicans. Recent contests for the PSC, while won by Republicans, reveal a closely divided electorate in which Republicans struggle to exceed 51% of the vote in bipartisan contests.
Since this year’s PSC contest is paired with the two Senate elections, participation will be relatively high, probably exceeding that in any previous runoff. And since voters in PSC contests rely on party and not on assessments of the candidates, the division of the vote will closely parallel the Senate results.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Distinguished University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is co-author of Runoff Elections in the United States.