Faced with ‘Cop City’ Referendum Push, Atlanta Changes Up Its Election Rules

In an 11th-hour change, Atlanta approved new rules for citizen-led petitions to include signature matching—a practice decried by Cop City protesters and voting rights advocates.

Piper French   |    February 9, 2024

Activists deliver hundreds of thousands of signed petitions to Atlanta’s City Hall in Sept. 2023 to force a referendum on Cop City. The signatures have been stuck in limbo in the midst of a legal battle. (Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, file) /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

This article is produced as a collaboration between Bolts and Mother Jones.

On January 29, two activists locked themselves to construction equipment belonging to the main “Cop City” contractor, shutting down the work site in downtown Atlanta for hours. “Myself and countless other residents have tried every legal avenue to Stop Cop City—but the City government has stonewalled us every step of the way,” an activist called Temperance said in a press statement. “I don’t want to have to be doing this today, but direct action and civil disobedience are the only options we have left.” Both activists were arrested and jailed.

In a way, the movement was returning to its roots. In 2021, the fight to stop Cop City began with direct action. After two years of protest, organizers extended their effort to the ballot box. Some felt it was critical to let Atlantans weigh in directly on the construction of a vast new law enforcement training center—and they were betting that the will of the people would ultimately come down on their side. On a more practical level, a referendum campaign struck Mary Hooks, a lead organizer for the Cop City vote coalition, as a straightforward process with delineated steps and rules: a signature collection phase, a break while the city verified them, then on to a massive voter turnout effort. “We were like, ‘This seems very clear in terms of the path that we need to be walking on,’” she recalled. 

As it turns out, the path has been anything but clear. The Atlanta city government has thrown up barriers at every turn, miring the petition gathering and signature approval process in bureaucratic and legal delays. The city has even drawn the ire of mainstream Democratic politicians and voting rights groups in its attempts to deploy classic forms of voter restriction. 

These roadblocks were made possible by the fact that the organizers are essentially starting from zero. Atlanta has never hosted a citizen-led referendum before, and therefore has few established structures in place to govern the process. “So much of what happened over the course of the past two years was entirely preventable, had we had a codified process that allowed everyone to know what the rules of the game were,” said Rohit Malhotra, the founder and executive director of Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation.

Since last September, Malhotra and others have sought to address this conundrum by drafting local legislation that would clarify the referendum process, now and for the future. That, too, has been met with interference from the mayor’s office. On Monday, the Atlanta city council finally passed legislation codifying rules and regulations for a referendum. But not before an 11th hour substitution that reintroduced signature matching, a form of verification that national voting rights groups have decried as burdensome and discriminatory. “Our ask was simple—we just wanted you to protect democracy.” Malhotra said during public comment this week. “This body has continued to break its word and to break our hearts.”

Now, as the Stop Cop City movement continues to wait for a federal appeals court to hand down a decision about the legality of the petition gathering process, there are still 16 boxes of five month-old signatures sitting untouched in City Hall. But, amidst this uncertainty, external deadlines are fast approaching. The referendum was originally supposed to appear on last November’s ballot, and it’s already too late for this year’s March presidential primary election, too. Organizers are now debating whether to aim for the ballot in May, when local primaries happen, or wait until November, when the presidential election might force Democrats nationally to weigh in on the fight, given Georgia’s battleground status. If the decision comes late enough, and city officials keep stalling, the choice may be made for them.

“If the city of Atlanta was really invested in elevating the voices of its residents, they would at least be ready,” said Analilia Mejia, the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a national network of 50 organizations, three of which are local to Atlanta, that is supporting the referendum effort “They wouldn’t be running a clock.” 

From the beginning, Cop City has revealed the fault lines present in Atlanta’s system of representative democracy. Organizers started talking about the possibility of a popular referendum as early as September 2021. That was the month the city council first decided, over strenuous public opposition, to turn hundreds of acres of land in Atlanta’s South River Forest over to the Atlanta Police Foundation, which planned to build a massive training center for law enforcement and first responders—replete with a mock city to practice quelling street protests, an explosives test site, and multiple gun ranges. “By September (2021) it is clear that there’s organized money and organized special interests pushing this,” said Mejia. “It then becomes clear to us that we need organized people and some organized money to counter it.”

After almost two years of protest, the push to bring Cop City to a public vote came to fruition. In June 2023, in an echo of the 2021 meeting, the council voted to allocate tens of millions in public funds toward the training center—again, after hours of public comment, most of it against the measure. The coalition announced the referendum campaign the following day. 

Atlanta’s city charter gave Stop Cop City organizers 60 days to collect more than 58,000 signatures from city voters in order to get on the November ballot, a challenge in itself. But, almost immediately, the city started to stonewall. The city clerk delayed the beginning of the petition process by quibbling over the petition’s formatting, and in August, city officials announced that Atlanta would implement “signature matching”—the process of comparing a person’s signature on the petition to the one on file for them in state voter records. 

Signature matching has been used in many states for other voting practices, like authenticating absentee ballots. But it is widely considered to be an unnecessarily onerous form of verification that disproportionately excludes votes from people of color, English language learners, and the elderly and disabled. Atlanta’s decision to implement signature matching drew wide condemnation, including from Democratic leaders like Senator Raphael Warnock and voting rights groups founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams.

The city has also fought organizers on who can collect signatures. After residents in unincorporated areas of Dekalb County sued the city—arguing they were unfairly excluded from the petition drive despite living near the proposed training center site—a federal judge ruled in their favor. The judge’s order immediately expanded residency requirements for canvassers and restarted the 60-day timeline to gather signatures. The coalition says it delivered some 116,000 signatures in September (nearly double what they need to get on the ballot), but the city appealed and has refused to tally them and move forward with the referendum process until a federal appeals court issues its opinion. 

As they wait for the court’s decision, Stop Cop City Vote organizers have found themselves in limbo. “There’s a lot that I want to do and would like to be doing versus going back and forth with the city with something that should be so simple,” said Hooks. “We’re here for the long game struggle,” she went on, but acknowledged that the delays have taken a toll on some: “I know it’s been very disappointing and demoralizing in a lot of ways.” 

One antidote to this frustration was to start work on the proposal to codify a referendum procedure—a parallel track that doesn’t affect the court’s decision, but would jumpstart the process if the court rules in the organizers’ favor. 

The draft ordinance, crafted with the help of national voting rights lawyer Marc Elias and first introduced by Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari in January, laid out procedures for reviewing the referendum petitions. Crucially, it aimed to preclude signature matching, which Malhotra called “non-negotiable.” Instead, the ordinance proposed a “curing” process to resolve inconsistencies, like the accidental omission of a middle name, that can trigger a signature invalidation.

But on Monday, two council members—including one who represents the affluent Buckhead neighborhood, which has in the past sought to secede from the rest of Atlanta and where many residents firmly support the construction of Cop City—forced language into the legislation that outlines a process for a version of signature matching. After Malhotra spoke for 10 minutes, imploring the city council to amend the legislation to remove signature matching, the body approved the ordinance anyway by a 10-5 vote. By then, the legislation had changed so much that Bakhtiari voted against it. 

Chaos ensued, with organizers, including Mary Hooks, occupying the dais to protest the last-minute change. “We see continuously the city betraying everyday people and our right to vote on issues that matter to us,” she told the room.

A federal appeals court ruling in the city’s favor could derail the referendum process even further. The city could argue that since the lower court’s earlier decision expanding the timeframe for people to collect signatures was overturned, the circumstances of their collection are now simply invalid—though Malhotra says such a decision would make the city look even worse. “I don’t think the mayor or the council, or the city in general, benefits from winning on a technicality,” Malhotra said. “For them to be like: ‘Well, I know we have these hundred and whatever thousand signatures but now we’re going to burn them’—I think that that’s just a politically silly thing for them to do.”
“But I don’t hold it beyond them,” he added. 

If the court rules in favor of the coalition, an entirely new scramble will ensue. Per its charter, the city has 50 days to stand up a referendum process. That’s where the new ordinance comes in. With more than 100,000 signatures collected, coalition members say they’re confident that they will cross the threshold even if some signatures are thrown out. But the verification process could still present issues. An analysis by the Associated Press and several local news outlets found a high number of seemingly invalid signatures. If the petition is approved despite these challenges, the question will then be whether to vote on it in May or November.

Many onlookers have struggled to understand why the city has invested so much energy and risked so much bad press in continuing to block a vote. “I cannot understand how the home of King and Lewis has the audacity to fight basic democratic process for any other reason than they are scared to lose,” said Malhotra. “From day one, this has been a process and procedure failure—and rather than addressing that underlying challenge, I think they underestimated the public’s appetite for transparency on process and procedure, and overestimated and overplayed their hand on trying to turn this into a binary conversation about policing and public safety.”

While legislation codifying a referendum process has passed, albeit with signature-matching included, there’s still no telling when the federal appeals court decision may come. In the meantime, there will be more direct actions. “Folks have said, like, ‘Hey, while we’re waiting and the referendum’s in limbo, and we still gonna give our elected officials the smoke—these corporations are also not going to be let off the hook,’” Hooks said. “We’re not going to lay the direct action component of this fight down just because the state repression is coming.” 

Sixty-one Cop City activists have been indicted for violating Georgia’s RICO act, and some 42 of them also have pending domestic terrorism charges. This week, state and federal law enforcement officers raided several Cop City opponents’ homes, taking at least two people into custody and reportedly refusing to show arrest warrants. 

On February 6, the Georgia state legislature passed a bill mandating cash bail for offenses like racketeering, domestic terrorism, criminal trespass, and “unlawful assembly.” It would also drastically limit bail funds’ ability to bond out protestors like Hooks and others who affixed themselves to construction vehicles on January 29. “On Monday when I left home,” Hooks recalled, “my wife was like, ‘Please come back. Please come back.’”

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