Atlanta City Council passes referendum legislation after pushback

Lorraine Fontana of Grand Mothers for Peace awaits the press conference from the opponents of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center announcing the delivery of their petition with 100,000 signatures at the City Hall on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Lorraine Fontana of Grand Mothers for Peace awaits the press conference from the opponents of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center announcing the delivery of their petition with 100,000 signatures at the City Hall on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Atlanta City Council members passed on Monday legislation that codifies the petition verification process. The final legislation was a stripped-down version of a bill that was supported by organizers of the petition against the city’s public safety training center.

The ordinance was altered so much that, ultimately, its author Liliana Bakhtiari voted against it. Much of the opposition to the amended bill was that language in the legislation could leave room for verifiers to use signature-matching — a practice widely condemned by both Democrats and Republicans as a method that disenfranchised voters.

The city of Atlanta is currently caught in a first-of-its-kind referendum battle that aims to put the future public safety training center on the ballot for voters to decide.

The project — that now comes with a price tag of $109 million — has faced pushback through fiery protests, hours of public comment at council meetings and the referendum petition currently tied up in federal court.

The referendum process outlined in state code is unclear about the steps a municipality must take to review submitted citizen-led referendum petitions. While it outlines the number of signers required to get the issue on the ballot and the timeline for signature collection and verification, it leaves out crucial details including to what lengths reviewers should go to validate names, and it does not explain whether there is an opportunity for a curing process for questionable signers.

Bakhtiari worked with petitioners and voting rights advocates to introduce legislation that would fill those gaps after the process the city chose to verify signatures was met with concern from high-profile Democrats.

Both U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Stacy Abrams weighed in on the referendum issue last fall, urging the city of Atlanta to increase transparency around verification. Particularly to what extent the city will utilize voter registration cards to confirm signatures.

A group of thirty voting rights organizations including the New Georgia Project — founded by Abrams — sent a letter to council in support of Bakhtiari’s legislation which said that it was drafted “following best-practice standards from municipalities across the nation and constructed by leading litigators in the voting rights and election law space.”

But an amended substitute measure ultimately passed 10-5. City lawyers said that changes needed to be made to the legislation so that it would not conflict with state laws surrounding referendums.

Council members Bakhtiari, Byron Amos, Jason Dozier, Antonio Lewis and Keisha Sean Waites ultimately voted against the proposal.

Opponents of the training center lined up again at City Hall on Monday for public comment and rallied enough supporters to speak for more than two hours. At one point, group of protesters was removed from the council chamber by law enforcement after occupying members’ seats behind the dais.

Stephanie Ali, policy director with the New Georgia Project, echoed concerns shared by both organizers and some council members that the Georgia state legislature may crack down on citizen-led referendums after Atlanta’s controversy over the training center.

“What the city of Atlanta does echoes across this state — Atlanta influences everything, it’s not just a shirt, it’s true,” she said during public comment Monday.

“(The initial legislation) sets clear, fair and deeply important standards for referendums here in Atlanta, which of course, provides you an opportunity to set up municipalities statewide,” she continued.

The legislation that passed has a number of notable changes from the Bakhtiari’s first proposal.

It adds lengthy references to the Georgia Home Rule Act — the provision in state code that requires petition signers to be residents of the municipality it effects. It adds steps for the second stage of the review process that includes comparing signatures to voter cards. And it shortens the window for questionable signers to be able to cure their entry.

Bakhtiari’s legislation also included a statistical random sampling process for the clerk to get an idea if petitioners hit the required 15% of registered voters threshold to get the petition on the ballot.

Council member Michael Julian Bond, a supporter of the facility, said signature matching is not enshrined in the ordinance. He pointed to a section that says “optical character recognition” (OCR) or “exact matches” of signatures won’t be required to verify a signer.

“So for people who are concerned that we’re voting on signature match, it’s here in this section that OCR is not an option for the city,” he said.

Bakhtiari said that the language within the final bill leaves room for interpretation.

“I understand that this is not the same thing, however ‘verification’ as it is listed to me can still create issues for people experiencing disability, the elderly, etcetera,” she said.

The Cop City Vote Coalition released a statement following the meeting condemning the legislation and calling for City Council to bypass the referendum petition and put the training center on the ballot directly.

“We are in an election year in a state that President Biden won by just 11,000 votes,” the coalition said. “How can Atlanta and Georgia Democrats ask for our votes in November as they continue to ignore our will and engage in blatant hypocrisy?”

The verification process the city must take is currently on hold while the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reviews the city’s case to reverse a court decision that extended the signature collection timeline for training center opponents. Oral arguments were heard in December but it is unclear when the court will rule.

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