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Is City Hall Using a Voter Suppression Tactic Against the ‘Cop City’ Vote Coalition?

Critics say the use of signature matching to validate referendum petition supporters’ identity risks unfairly disenfranchising people.

Voting rights organizations are pressing the Atlanta City Council, seen in May, to abandon using signature matching as the city validates a petition calling for a referendum on the "Cop City" project. (Madeline Thigpen/Capital B)

Georgia’s leading voting rights groups say Atlanta officials’ plan to verify petition signatures gathered by opponents of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center contradicts the city’s legacy as “the cradle of the modern civil rights movement.”

The petition forms will be reviewed manually, line-by-line, in a process overseen by the municipal clerk’s office. In order for a signature to be verified, it will be matched to the signature on that person’s voter registration, a process known as signature matching. 

Proponents of the method tout it as an election fraud-prevention measure, while critics say the approach risks unfairly disenfranchising people. Comparing signatures isn’t an exact science, people’s signatures often change over time, and minority, elderly, and disabled voters have historically been most likely to have their signatures called into question.

Cop City Vote, the local activist coalition behind the petition push, has gathered more than 100,000 signatures. They are trying to hold a referendum on the training center, commonly known as “Cop City,” next March. 

The group announced on Monday that it would postpone turning the petition forms over to the city, citing concerns about the process. Instead, they will wait until Sept. 23 to collect as many signatures as possible in anticipation of the city attempting to toss out a significant number of signatures.

On Tuesday, some of Georgia’s most prominent voting rights organizations addressed an open letter to the Atlanta City Council and Interim Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon, characterizing the signature verification process as “subjective and unreliable.” They called on the city to either step away from using it or provide a pathway for the public to dispute incorrectly invalidated signatures.

“Signature match has always been about using power to disenfranchise voters,” said April England-Albright, national legal director for Black Voters Matter, one of the 25 voting rights groups to sign the open letter.

The letter referenced a lawsuit filed by the Georgia Democratic Party in 2019 that alleged minority voters in the previous year’s election were twice as likely to have their absentee ballots rejected for reasons including missing or mismatched signatures.

Determining if signatures match will be up to the discretion of the person reviewing the form. City officials have said all rejected signatures will have the reason for the rejection documented and made publicly available.

In response to the backlash, former City Clerk Foris Webb III, who was brought in to help with the verification process, told Atlanta News First that the petition verification team is aware that a person’s signature might change due to medical reasons or just overtime.

He went on to say that they would not be doing “signature exact matching,” but did not clarify how the team would be comparing petition signatures to voter’s registration. In order to get the referendum on the ballot, 15% of registered voters have to sign the petition. The city confirmed on a recent call with journalists that organizers need 58,232 signatures to get their issue on the ballot.

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