By: Matt Scott
Update: City Council Office of Communications issued a press release Monday afternoon confirmed the city plans to manually verify each signature and other information line-by-line.
On Monday, the Stop Cop City Coalition announced it had collected 104,000 signatures on a referendum petition that would allow Atlanta voters to decide whether to overturn the 2021 lease of 381 acres of city-owned land in the South River Forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, but it will not turn in those signatures yet, citing an argument by the city that will increase the minimum number of signatures required for the petition to be successful and concerns that city officials plan to use what the coalition says is a voter suppression technique when validating petition signatures.
“We’ve collected over 104,000 raw signatures around the City of Atlanta — from Southwest to Buckhead — and the people have decided. Cop City must be put on the ballot,” said Mary Hooks, Tactical Lead for the Referendum Coalition.
After weeks of asserting it planned to turn in signatures in August, news that the coalition would not be turning in signatures on Monday came as a surprise late Sunday night when the coalition released a brief statement on their social media accounts saying, “because of shifting info from the city and lack of clarity on validation, we will NOT be submitting tomorrow.”
The Atlanta City Charter states, “the council shall authorize an initiative or referendum election on petition of at least 15 percent of the registered voters qualified to vote in the preceding general municipal election.” Previously, the referendum coalition interpreted this statute to mean active registered voters at the time of the 2021 municipal election, which meant the coalition needed 58,203 signatures. Through media contacts and sources inside city hall, the coalition says it heard recently that the city plans now to count inactive voters as well, bringing the total required signatures to around 62,000.
The coalition also says it believes city officials plan to use signature matching as a method of validating referendum petitions. Signature matching is a subjective form of validation in which election workers match signatures on a ballot – or in this case petition – to that of their driver’s license or voter registration card by analyzing things like slant, shape, speed of writing, and pen lifts. The ACLU says that signature matching leads to “the unconstitutional disenfranchisement of eligible voters.”
In November 2019, the Democratic Party sued the state of Georgia over its use of signature matching after 3% of the 2018 general election absentee ballots in the state were thrown out due in part to signature matching. The parties settled in March 2020, and the state of Georgia agreed to institute new policies ensuring that a second election worker assess a signature before it is invalidated and required election officials to notify individuals if their ballots were rejected. It is unclear if city officials plan to follow these state level policies.
The coalition issued a legal memorandum on Monday addressing the city’s plans for validation. Attorneys for the coalition say there is no requirement that the city verify every individual signature, arguing instead that the city should use a statistical methodology. “In most elections,” the memo states, “the governing authority does not engage in a post-submission validity check of individual ballots. Instead, individual review of ballots is limited to those situations as recounts in close and contested elections and to risk-limiting audits.”
Coalition attorneys also note that the petition form provided the city’s municipal clerk offers no warning to signers that signatures will be validated against any file or database.
Mayor Andre Dickens previously spoke against voter suppression in Georgia. “We will fight to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” said Dickens during the 2021 mayoral race. That act, which has twice failed to pass in the U.S. Senate, would limit states’ ability to use techniques like signature matching.
Dickens previously stated he did not believe the referendum petition would succeed. “We know [this referendum] is going to be unsuccessful, if it’s done honestly,” Dickens said on July 5.
On Aug. 14, Stop Cop City activists outside the Fulton County Courthouse expressed their belief that Dickens is acting undemocratically regarding the referendum. “Mayor Dickens has stated that he doesn’t believe that the people should be able to have a voice when they don’t agree with the course of their government and the decisions that their representatives who have been elected to represent them by the way, but we don’t agree with their decisions,” said Reverend Keyanna Jones, an organizer with the Stop Cop City movement.
The Stop Cop City Coalition said it was considering the use of nonviolent, direct actions if the city continues to be opaque about the referendum validation process.
“If the City needs to see a demonstration of the people’s commitment to this issue, we’re happy to provide one,” said Kamau Franklin, Community Movement Builders.
The coalition says it now plans to turn in petition signatures on Sept. 23.
The city has not released any information on how it plans to validate petition signatures. The City Council is set to pass legislation authorizing the City Attorney’s Office to hire outside counsel to assist with the validation process.