Atlanta City Council member wants to codify the petition process

Bakhtiari’s legislation aims to fill those gaps that have created confusion during Atlanta’s first ever petition drive over the city’s controversial public safety training center.

The proposal requires the clerk to accept the petitions and, within five days, tally the total number of signatures submitted. The city would then have to select names to verify through random sampling and dictates what characteristics of an entry would disqualify it — missing or mismatched information when compared to the list of registered voters.

The bill also outlines a curing process, how members of the public can observe verification and says organizers can appeal the outcome through the courts if they wish.

Bakhtiari told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she believes, as the 2024 legislative session gets underway, state GOP lawmakers are eyeing crackdowns on the ability for residents to attempt a ballot referendum petition drive. Lawmakers have yet to file a bill that does so.

“It is my belief that while direct democracy is a rather imperfect form, it is the last stand that the people have to actually hold their leaders accountable,” she said.

The city is currently trapped in a contentious referendum battle with opponents of Atlanta’s $90-million public safety training center that’s being built in unincorporated DeKalb County.

In September, protesters turned in tens of thousands of signatures on a petition to force the project on the ballot for voters to decide. But the process has been marred with confusion over how the city has chosen to handle the petition papers.

Bakhtiari has been an ally to organizers throughout the grassroots referendum campaign.

The city has chosen to refrain from starting the daunting verification process of every single name on the petition, citing a pending legal battle with DeKalb County organizers. An analysis by the AJC and a group of media partners found organizers turned in 108,500 signatures.

Each needs to be individually verified by city officials to determine if the signer is a registered Atlanta voter who was also registered to vote in 2021 when the lease agreement for the project was passed.

Both Mayor Andre Dickens and his predecessor Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms touted the facility as a crucial investment in training for the city’s police and firefighters. But the center has been met with substantial pushback by opponents who worry about negative environmental impacts to the South River Forest — where the facility sits — and how it may fuel militarization of police.

The AJC analysis found nearly half of a 1,000 signature samples could not be matched to an Atlanta voter meeting the eligibility qualifications.

Still, the sample found it’s possible that organizers met their target. But unsolved legal disputes and questions surrounding how the city will verify signers’ eligibility could drastically shrink the total of valid signatures.

There are still many unanswered questions about how the city will verify each signer. Bakhtiari’s legislation would establish “clear guidance dictating the parameters and procedures” the clerk’s office must follow if a petition is submitted by residents.

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