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Referendum coalition requests election monitors oversee City’s process

By: Matt Scott

On Tuesday, the Cop City Vote Coalition requested the Carter Center monitor how Atlanta undertakes the verification process to validate the referendum petition that would put the future of the training center opponents call “Cop City” on the ballot. 

The coalition made its request to the director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program David Carroll via a letter obtained by the Atlanta Community Press Collective just before news broke that 61 individuals had been indicted on RICO (racketeering-influenced and curropt organizations) charges

According to the Democracy Program’s website, since 1989, “the Carter Center has been a pioneer of election observation, monitoring 114 elections in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.” The center brought its election monitoring operation home to the United States after the 2020 election when former President Donald Trump denied presidential election results resulting in a coup attempt by Trumps’ supporters. 

The coalition’s letter provided a timeline of events in which City officials demonstrated antipathy toward the referendum, including Mayor Andre Dickens’ July 5 statement that, “we know [this referendum] is going to be unsuccessful, if it’s done honestly,” and called into question the City’s ability to fairly carry out the validation process without the Carter Center’s intervention in the process. 

“This coalition,” the letter reads, “is prepared to accept the results of a free and fair election. We are not confident that we will have the opportunity to see those results even with the required number of signatures.”

The referendum petition seeks to overturn the 2021 lease of the former Old Atlanta Prison Farm site to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, more commonly known as Cop City and has the support of a broad swath of Atlantans, including Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. “We need to allow the people of the City of Atlanta… to be able to vote on the public safety training facility,” King said in a video interview with NowThis

The coalition originally filed the referendum petition on June 7, but the petition was twice denied by Atlanta’s Interim Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon. The petition was approved on June 21, after the coalition filed a lawsuit that sought to compel the clerk to approve it. 

In early July, four DeKalb residents supporting the referendum filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Atlanta that argued a city law requiring petition signature gatherers be residents of Atlanta violated the First Amendment. U.S. District Court Judge Mark Cohen ruled in favor of the coalition July 27, which opened the door for anyone to gather petition signatures regardless of residency. Cohen granted relief to the coalition by resetting the 60-day window in which it could gather signatures for the petition, moving the date from Aug. 21 to Sept. 25. 

The coalition said it gathered over 104,000 signatures in the first 60 days – almost double the 58,231 required to put the referendum on the ballot – and planned to turn in the collected signatures on Aug. 21. That morning, however, the group issued a press release revealing it had learned the City planned to use a voter suppression technique known as signature matching to validate petition signatures and would delay signature turn in until Sept. 22. Hours later, a press release from the Office of the Municipal Clerk, confirmed the City’s intent to use signature matching. 

25 voting rights groups quickly released an open letter criticizing the City’s plan. In response to backlash, the city walked back some of its language around signature matching, which one expert called “witchcraft,” but made no substantive changes to its guidance. 

An Aug. 24 update from the municipal clerk stated that the city will not use artificial intelligence powered digital signature matching or exact matching, but still mentioned manually validating every signature. A second update from Sept. 1 reiterated that the city would not use exact matching, but outlined a process for signature validation that includes assessing, “the size, shape, and orientation of the signature as a whole and the size, shape, and orientation of particular characters” of each signature in comparison to the signature on file for each voter. This process is similar to how the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office previously conducted its signature validation.  

The coalition’s letter notes that the municipal clerk is intended to be non-partisan in matters like citizen referendums, but both updates released by the clerk were authored by individuals outside the clerk’s office who are partisan to the referendum process. The municipal clerk answers to the City Council, not the mayor, but file data from the Aug. 24 update shows Mayor Andre Dickens’ Press Secretary Michael Smith authored the document. The Sept. 1 update was authored by Robert L. Ashe IIIthe lead attorney for the city in its fight against the referendum in federal court who, according to the coalition’s letter, argued that the referendum process “should be ruled unconstitutional statewide.”

The city is not the only force hindering the referendum. 

On Sept. 1, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city and issued a stay of Judge Cohen’s July decision, throwing confusion into the referendum process. The court will hear a round of arguments from both sides before issuing its final decision. 

The appeals court ordered an expedited timeline for the hearing, but the city’s final arguments are not due until Oct. 3, a little over a week after the coalition would be required to turn in their petitions under the Northern District ruling. 

In a written statement, Mary Hooks, tactical lead for the Cop City Vote Coalition, said of the decision, “we are disappointed that the 11th Circuit has stayed the injunction in this case, particularly given the confusion this ruling creates, and lack of clarity provided by the Court. To be clear: this does not mean the petition itself has been invalidated or disqualified, only that the Northern District’s injunction has been stayed pending a full decision.”

The coalition is determining what steps to take in light of the recent ruling by the court of appeals.

“We remain fully committed to putting Cop City on the ballot to let the people’s voices be heard, and are assessing what this means for our ongoing signature collection and canvass efforts,” said Hooks. “In this heightened time of attacks on democratic processes, this ruling leaves the order up for interpretation and now Atlantans will pay the price in confusion, anger, and disillusionment.”

The Cop City Vote Coalition confirmed that as of the time of publication, the Carter Center had not responded to their request.

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