Atlanta Officials Unveil Onerous Verification Requirements for Cop City Referendum

The city outlined its plans for signature verification after organizers collected 100,000 signatures for a vote on the police training facility.

'Stop Cop City protesters march from Atlanta's Gresham Park in honor of slain protester Manuel Teran on June 28, 2023. Photo by Collin Mayfield, SIPA USA.(Sipa via AP Images)
Stop Cop City protesters march from Atlanta’s Gresham Park in honor of slain protester Manuel Teran on June 28, 2023. Photo: Collin Mayfield/Sipa via AP

After organizers in Atlanta collected over 100,000 signatures for a referendum on the construction of a $90 million police training facility, city officials announced an elaborate signature verification process for the effort.

Atlanta’s Interim Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon outlined the city’s process for verifying the signatures needed to bring the training facility to a vote in a statement on Monday. 

“In an effort to ensure that adequate resources are dedicated to this project, the City of Atlanta — through the adoption of the Atlanta City Council — has developed a step-by-step process to conduct the audit of the documents, of which the signature verification process maybe a critical element,” Waldon wrote.

The announcement came hours after activists with the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition put a hold on their plans to submit the 104,000 signatures they have so far collected in support of a popular vote on the facility, dubbed “Cop City” by its critics. 

Once referendum organizers submit their petition to the city, the clerk’s office will take the boxes of signatures to a secure vault, scan every individual page, and conduct a manual, line-by-line review of every page, comparing each signature to those in the state voter registration database, Waldon’s office wrote. “The City will not comment on the review once the verification process begins,” the statement notes. 

Voting rights advocates have previously said that such signature verification practices — described as “witchcraft” by at least one expert — serve to disenfranchise voters and can result in signatures getting thrown out on the basis of perceived minute differences or aberrations. One study, for instance, showed that 97 percent of signatures rejected under Ohio’s signature-matching law were likely authentic. 

“Signature matching is a Republican-style voter suppression tactic that will disenfranchise thousands of predominantly Black and working class voters,” said DaMareo Cooper, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. “It’s clear that the City of Atlanta knows that they will lose a vote over Cop City, so now they are trying to prevent it. It’s outrageous and shameful.”

In 2019, the Democratic Party of Georgia, joined by national Democrats, argued against signature verification requirements in a lawsuit against the Georgia secretary of state. “Signature matching laws are particularly problematic for racial and ethnic minority voters; young, first-time voters; voters with disabilities; and senior citizen voters,” the Democrats wrote, “all of whom are more likely to have variations in their signatures, or voters who may require assistance from others to enter a signature.”

The debate over Cop City has roiled Atlanta for more than two years. The City Council first approved the lease of what used to be the site of an old Atlanta prison farm to the Atlanta Police Foundation for a new police training facility in September 2021. At the time, the council had heard 17 hours of public comment, much of it opposed to the proposal.

The opposition intensified this year, after police shot and killed a protester, indiscriminately arrested dozens more, and tried charging three bail fund organizers with “money laundering.” A City Council hearing in June featured over 15 hours of public comment and mass protest, with more than 230 comments made against the facility, and only four in favor of it. Despite that, the council approved $67 million in taxpayer dollars for the facility at 5:30 a.m. — propelling organizers to launch the referendum effort the following day.

Under City Code, the minimum threshold for a referendum is 15 percent of registered voters from the last preceding general municipal election. Accordingly, organizers set a goal of collecting 58,203 signatures — and far surpassed it. City officials, for their part, have not stated the exact number of signatures needed.

On Monday, organizers raised concerns that the city would seek to increase the number of signatures needed for the referendum’s validation by arguing that inactive voters should be included in that 15 percent. The Atlanta Community Press Collective reported that doing so would raise the minimum threshold to “closer to 62,000.”

City Council President Doug Shipman referred The Intercept’s questions to the municipal clerk’s office, while also pointing to the law outlining the 15 percent requirement. Shipman did not respond to follow-up questions about what exactly the minimum threshold will be. The municipal clerk’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

In court, city attorneys have derided the referendum effort as “invalid” and “futile.” Democratic Mayor Andre Dickens has also disparaged the effort, saying that “we know that this is is going to be unsuccessful, if it’s done honestly.”

Georgia’s attorney general’s office, meanwhile, has called the whole effort “entirely invalid under Georgia law.”

The agreement between city and state officials embodies a symbiosis between elected Republicans and Democrats on defending the construction of a $90 million facility for a police force that has responded to opposition to the planned facility with brute force.

In January, Atlanta police shot and killed forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita. The police claimed that officers only shot after being shot at first — only for an independent autopsy to find that Tortuguita’s hands were raised during the shooting, and that police shot Tortuguita at least 57 times.

In March, police indiscriminately arrested dozens of people at a music festival organized by protesters in the Atlanta forest set to be razed for the facility. The protesters were detained and arrested on domestic terrorism charges, with probable cause citations including having muddy shoes (they were in a forest, where it had rained) or being “part of the team” because they were wearing black.


Atlanta Police Arrest Organizers of Bail Fund for Cop City Protesters

In May, Atlanta police deployed a heavy-duty police truck and hordes of riot police to arrest three individuals who had been helping to organize bail and legal support funds for protesters. The police attempted to stick “money laundering” and “charity fraud” charges to the trio. The judge presiding over the prosecution said he did not find the case to be very impressive, noting that “there’s not a lot of meat on the bones.”

Last month, a federal judge ruled that organizers have until September 23 to submit their final count of signatures for the referendum. In a statement on Monday, the coalition said it would continue to gather signatures until that date, “to leave no doubt as to the will of Atlanta voters.”

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