Discover more from The Atlanta Objective with George Chidi
Sign(ature)s of the Times
The use of signature matching for the Cop City petition drive raises questions about whether City Hall is operating in good faith.
After the Atlanta City Council approved spending in June for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center — Cop City — opponents immediately announced a petition drive for a referendum to block the move.
The city’s administrative apparatus immediately seized up. It took a week just to get the clerk to agree to the exact form of the petitions. Every bit of that was predictable. When an institution doesn’t want something to happen, it buries it in bureaucracy.
I’ve been around long enough to see this before. So I wrote on Twitter:
Here we are, two months later, and the playbook is unfolding on the field. Organizers say they’ve collected more than 104,000 signatures supporting a referendum. Note that, according to the clerk’s office, Atlanta in November 2021 had “388,205 active voters in the City, meaning that petitioners will need to establish that at least 58,231 of those City electors signed during the required time period to achieve the minimum 15% threshold.”
The petitioners have more signatures than there are voters who typically turn out in a municipal election. They have more signatures than anyone may have ever earned in a municipal election in Georgia. The question is how many are valid.
Just as the Stop Cop City drive was about to present boxes of signed petitions on Monday, the clerk’s office announced that it would match signatures on the petitions to the official state voter registration database — which for most people is their drivers’ license signature — a process that progressive lawmakers and activists have long considered odious enough to repeatedly merit federal lawsuits to block.
The office of the mayor says it has no control over the process, which it doesn’t.
“The municipal clerk shall be appointed and removed at the pleasure of the council upon a majority vote of its membership.” — Section 2-307 of Atlanta’s city charter. Former city clerk Foris Webb III retired earlier this year, though he has been brought back to oversee the petition validation effort.
Please note: the interim city clerk, Vanessa Waldon, has not yet been confirmed by the council in her role. Her job is up for a vote. On the bubble, this is the decision she made about how to validate petitions.
I have asked each city councilperson to state their position on the use of signature matching to verify a voter's identity. I will update this page as I receive responses.
“Having been involved in numerous elections, including ones that were extremely close, as well as a spearheading a petition drive that collected over 25,000 signatures, I support a signature match. In addition to the above, I have also served on the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections.” — Mary Norwood.
I tried to ask interim city clerk Vanessa Waldon about the process this morning. She politely replied that she couldn’t comment at all, because of “pending litigation.”
The clerks office released a statement last night describing the process. Four attorneys, all political operatives from out of state, have been retained by the city for the validation effort. The procedure calls for multiple observers to sign off on a mismatched signature, for scans of all of the petitions to be published online, and for the list of those whose signatures have been invalidated to also be published, the better for referendum advocates to track them down to cure their deficiency.
When the state used signature validation to check absentee ballots in 2020, they found almost no errors. The mismatch rate in Cobb County in one case was zero.
Signatures are far more likely to be thrown out because many, many so-called adults here do not understand the distinction between living and voting in the city of Atlanta and “Atlanta,” which may as well be in Marietta or Norcross or Stone Mountain for some people. We have no idea how many signed the petition even though they weren’t a registered voter in Atlanta in November 2021, as the law requires.
In the statement, the clerk took pains to distinguish between the use of optical character reading software, which the office is not using, and human verification, which it will.
That is a distinction without a difference, critics say, because arbitrary decisions about what is or is not valid are the problem.
“I’m very concerned that you’re going to see Atlanta city officials make sure that those who compare signatures will be doing things like using your signatures from the DMV,” former state representative Renitta Shannon said yesterday. “Which here in Georgia, you’re signing an electronic pad as your signature. And we all know when you sign those electronic pads, that doesn’t look like anybody’s actual signature. If you match it to anything else, you’re going to be able to throw it out every single time.”
Mayor Andre Dickens himself spoke strongly against signature matching laws when endorsing Bee Nguyen in the race for Secretary of State in 2022.
“Bee has a strong track record of protecting our right to vote and defending our democracy,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said. “When she was a State Representative, Bee repealed the discriminatory exact-match policy and restored the right to vote to nearly 50,000 Georgians.”
Congresswoman Nikema Williams, who had been trying to position herself as a mediator on the Cop City issue, released a statement of “concern” this morning.
“Petition drives are a new chapter in Atlanta’s democracy,” she wrote. “I’ve spoken with Mayor Dickens and he shares my concern over using an exact match signature process to verify petition signers, as it has been proven to disproportionately impact voters of color. The City of Atlanta must pioneer a transparent system that ensures everyone who is eligible and chooses, has the opportunity to participate in the petition drive. As the City of Atlanta continues through this uncharted territory, we must center our civil rights legacy with a petition system that ensures fairness for every Atlantan.”
Williams is a veteran of street organizing and political mobilization in Georgia, and may be coming to a realization: the grass roots are thoroughly pissed off at this point.
A letter penned by 25 progressive organizations went out earlier today to Atlanta’s city clerk and city council, slamming the signature matching process.
“That the city of Atlanta would use such a subjective and unreliable process is shameful and undermines the integrity of the city’s validation procedure,” the letter states. “Worse yet, yesterday’s release included no provisions for resolving signatures deemed “invalid” through a cure process, nor a plan for observers to ensure transparency and public trust.”
The signatories are a who’s who of get-out-the-vote groups: New Georgia Project, Fair Fight Action, Black Voters Matter, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Asian American Advocacy Fund, Georgia Conservation Voters and others.
Left unstated is the threat. The people addressed in this letter don’t need it spelled out. Renitta Shannon did that for the rest of us, however.
“I think this is going to have far-reaching consequences when it comes to the next presidential election,” she said. “A lot of the folks who are against Cop City are the same people who are heavily involved in elections … those are the same people that you’re then going to turn around and call on after you have ignored them and told them to shut up and you want to move forward with this, to get out the vote and make the case to vote for Joe Biden and vote for Democrats.”
We are amid a reality-warping media storm over 11,780 votes in 2020. How many votes are these groups worth in 2024?
I suspect it is just a matter of time before Raphael Warnock or Jon Ossoff say something. Both are dialed into the chatter and are perfectly aware of the potential consequences.