A group of voting and civil rights organizations gathered outside City Hall Thursday demanding city leaders put the referendum on the Atlanta public safety training center on the ballot.
“We believe that in this long and fraught battle, the people of the city of Atlanta have been left out, that their voices have not been heard and we’ve taken every legal action that we know to take in order to effectuate a valid referendum,” organizer Keyanna Jones said.
Organizers submitted more than 110,000 signatures to the city’s municipal clerk on Monday. The city took custody of the petitions but stated it will not begin to verify them due to an order issued by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jones, who is a plaintiff in the federal case along three other DeKalb County residents, filed an emergency motion asking the district court to intervene. U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen, who issued the original injunction, denied the plaintiffs’ motion because he lacked jurisdiction.
In his order, Cohen acknowledged the 11th circuit’s order was confusing. Cohen said he felt “compelled to comment upon the vacillating positions of the city of Atlanta throughout this litigation which has contributed to the uncertainty of the validly of the signatures previously collected in accordance with this court’s previous injunction.”
“The City could have avoided the conundrum that now exist. On June 21, 2023, instead of approving a referendum petition it had no intention to honor regardless of the number of signatures obtained from City residents, the City could have taken the position it later espoused in this lawsuit and disapproved the petition as unauthorized under Georgia law,” Cohen wrote.
“But the City instead opted to approve a petition for a referendum it believed and later contended was illegal. A proverb dating back over four centuries ago once again applies here: Honesty is the Best Policy.”
Petitioners originally had until August 21 to submit the signatures for verifications, but choose to wait after Cohen’s order originally granted them an extra 60 days until the end of September and because of confusion over the verification process the city was going to use.
At the press conference, members of Black Voters Matter, Georgia conservation voters and NAACP questioned the city’s decision to use a signature match verification process.
“We’ve seen rampant voter suppression all throughout Georgia. It saddens me that there is the smell of voter suppression in the city of Atlanta,” Georgia NAACP President Gerald Griggs said. “Let’s be clear, we are the birthplace of Civil Rights. If we are going to hold that mantle, we can’t continue to suppress people’s voices.”
On Aug. 21, the city announced former city clerk Emeritus Foris Webb III will return to City Hall to help supervise the line-by-line process that will verify each signature collected against state voter registration records.
Webb said the city “will not engage in signature exact matching” during the verification process and will only use “individual inspection of signatures” to determine validity when clarity is needed.
In a brief filed Wednesday on behalf of Jones and other plaintiffs, attorneys are asking the 11th Circuit Court to be heard in oral argument.
“Plaintiffs believe oral argument will aid the Court in its decisional process as it considers the referendum process itself and the implications of the injunction entered by the district court in light of the City’s changing positions on a number of issues,” the brief states.