ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia activists against a proposed police and firefighting training center have called on Democratic senators to denounce Atlanta’s plan to check every signature on a petition to put the issue to voters.
A “line-by-line review” would ensure the signatures match what officials have on file, said officials in the Democratic-led city, drawing praise from the head of the Georgia Republican Party, condemnation from voting rights groups, but silence from the state's Democratic senators, who for years have railed against GOP-imposed voter restrictions.
That silence has enraged “Stop Cop City” activists, who say they've collected more than 100,000 signatures. They warned Georgia's Democratic Party that it is turning its back on some of its most engaged members — people who knocked on doors to help Joe Biden narrowly win the battleground state in 2020 and will be asked to do the same thing next year.
“It's just been crickets,” said Amelia Weltner, a 34-year-old DeKalb County resident who has organized, canvassed and worked as a staffer for Democrats. “Since it's not Republicans doing the suppression, I guess it's not as high of a concern?"
This summer, Weltner said she has collected about 75 signatures, even canvassing outside a Beyoncé concert to put a halt to the $90 million, 85-acre project that has become a national rallying cry for environmentalists and anti-police protesters. But Weltner doubts she'll be motivated to canvass for Democrats who stood silent on an issue that's so important to her.
“The biggest question I'm going to be asking is, ‘When we needed them. Where were they?’” Weltner said. “DeKalb County and Fulton County are Georgia’s blue wall — they need our votes.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Jon Ossoff declined to comment and Sen. Raphael Warnock’s office didn't respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, state Democratic Party chair, called for a “transparent process” in a Thursday statement three days after the city revealed its signature plan. She also denounced a type of signature matching that city officials have said they will not use.
The mayor has no involvement in how the city councilmembers and the clerk's office determine the forms should be examined, a Dickens spokesperson said.
Tossing a petition based upon an inconsistent signature is a “widely discredited tool of voter suppression," voting advocates say.
“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,” more than two dozen voting rights organizations, including Fair Fight, wrote to city officials.
Opponents fear that the training center will lead to greater militarization of the police and exacerbate environmental damage in the South River Forest in a poor, predominantly Black area.
Officials counter that the campus would replace outdated, far-flung facilities and boost police morale, which is beset by hiring and retention struggles.
Organizers have until Sept. 23 to turn in about 58,000 valid signatures — the equivalent of 15% of registered voters as of the last city election. They are working to gather more to leave no doubt that voters want to decide.
Councilmembers have approved $67 million for the training center, despite huge protests inside City Hall. The referendum would seek to cancel the Council-endorsed lease agreement for the project.
But even if the referendum is approved by the clerk's office and survives an ongoing legal challenge, a lengthy review process will likely mean it won't appear on a ballot until March.
City officials say that once the signatures are turned in, at least two reviewers will examine questionable signatures. People whose signatures can't be verified will be mailed a notice and called so they can prove they signed, officials said.
State Republican Party Chairman Josh McKoon said on social media, “Kudos to Mayor Dickens and the Atlanta City Council for insisting on a fair elections process by using robust Voter ID measures!”
But Democratic state Rep. Saira Draper, whose district includes the proposed site, took to social media this week to denounce the signature-matching plan, saying, “Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights moment, must hold itself to a higher standard when it comes to voting rights.” Draper has declined to publicly take a position on the project itself.
Voters' official signatures are often carelessly scrawled with a stylus on a digital tablet while getting a driver's license, Draper said. When she worked in voter protection with state Democrats, "signature match was always something that we disagreed with and we fought against,” Draper told The Associated Press.
It's doubtful a significant number of signatures were forged because they are easily traced by personal information given on each form, Draper said.
On the lack of outcry from Warnock and Ossoff, Draper said she understood the activists’ frustration as well as “the position that being a federally elected official in a very purple state puts you in.”
R.j. Rico, The Associated Press