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Atlanta’s Petition Circulator Residency Requirement Fails in Court; South Dakota Petitions Still Demand Circulators Affirm Residency

Petitioners in Atlanta seeking to put a massive police training center (known as “Cop City”) to a public vote say they’ve collected over 100,000 voter signatures, well over the 58,203 needed to call a municipal referendum, but plan to collect signatures for another month to get all the cushion they can.

The “Stop Cop City” petitioners have that extra month to circulate because on July 27, federal Judge Mark Cohen told the city it can’t enforce its residency requirement for petition circulators:

Released Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen’s order temporarily blocks Atlanta from enforcing its requirement that those collecting signatures must swear they are Atlanta residents. Cohen also wrote that the city’s requirement “imposes a severe burden on core political speech.” And he added that Atlanta failed “to present any argument that the requirement is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.”

“But requiring signature gatherers to be residents of the city imposes a severe burden on core political speech and does little to protect the city’s interest in self-governance,” Cohen wrote. “Because this court finds that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their First Amendment claim, plaintiffs have established irreparable harm.”

He added: “The city has offered no specifics as to why permitting nonresident plaintiffs to gather signatures on a petition that must be signed by residents of the city will cause any disruption to the political process” [Jozsef Papp and Jeremy Redmon, “Judge Issues Order in Favor of Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Opponents,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2023.07.27].

Judge Cohen’s ruling reset the clock on the referendum petition drive, since it required the city to issue new petitions that did not include the residency requirement.

Judge Cohen reminds the city and the rest of us that there is a big difference between signing petitions and voting on ballot measures, which are exercises of actual legislative power and are properly restricted to residents, and circulating a petition, which is core political speech to which residents and nonresidents are equally entitled under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Judge Cohen clearly answered for Atlanta petitioners a question left unclear for South Dakota petitioners since last November, when the Eighth Circuit affirmed Judge Lawrence Piersol’s injunction of a major South Dakota law governing ballot question petitions. The League of Women Voters declared that Eighth Circuit ruling negated the residency requirement for petitioners in South Dakota, and the state appeared to stipulate to that conclusion in January. The 2023 Legislature enacted no new residency requirement for petition circulators, but to the best of my knowledge, no South Dakota petition sponsors have risked using out-of-state circulators this year, and the petition forms mandated by the Secretary of State still require circulators to swear that they are residents of South Dakota.


  1. All Mammal 2023-08-25 12:03

    The party of poopy pants never likes it when democracy is inclusive of people they view as beneath them. Oooh they get so mad. They see everyone else as unworthy to participate. Privileged, male, white planters make crappy decisions for the rest of America and they act like we forgot.

    Sometimes, they get divine inspiration and write nice documents we have to fight and struggle to adjust until it is just. But they didn’t really mean it.

  2. P. Aitch 2023-08-25 13:17

    I like Georgia more every day.

  3. All Mammal 2023-08-25 14:07

    I’m in P. Aitch’s club. I’m proud of Georgia like I was of India when they got to the moon.

  4. grudznick 2023-08-26 09:00

    As a #4Science guy, and the only remaining real scientist on this blog since the retirement of Dr. McT, grudznick likes Indian moonshots as much as the next guy.

  5. Donald Pay 2023-08-26 09:55

    Maybe I’m just a conservative traditionalist, but in reading the history of the initiative and referendum in South Dakota, it’s pretty clear that a large part of its appeal was local and state citizens’ negative reactions to having outside interest controlling the levers of local and state government, particularly through corruption. I don’t think the writers of the initiative and referendum amendment ever envisioned that non-residents would be collecting signatures, thus giving over what was supposed to be the citizens lever of power to outside interests. Although courts might say its fine for outside interests to collect signatures, I think its more in line with the culture and custom of South Dakota to do it the old-fashioned way—with real South Dakotans circulating the petitions.

  6. John 2023-08-30 09:37

    It would be grand if South Dakota’s petitioners had a campaign to keep trump off the ballot. Idol-worshipping Sec of State Johnson will not enforce Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.
    “Rarely do legal scholars compel government officials to embark on an unprecedented and hugely consequential course of action, but that is precisely what William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen, authors of a law review article regarding Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, and the intellectual powerhouse duo of former judge J. Michael Luttig and Laurence H. Tribe have done.

    In a remarkably short time, they have driven home the implications of Section 3: that all officials with a role in the presidential election process must consider disqualifying former president Donald Trump from the 2024 ballot if they find he “either ‘engaged in insurrection or rebellion’ against the Constitution or gave ‘aid and comfort to the enemies’ of that Constitution.”

    Secretaries of state certainly have heard them loud and clear. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), appearing on MSNBC (where I am a contributor), “emphasized her plan to consider the issue exclusively based on applicable law, without partisan considerations, expressing concern that this issue could become weaponized in future elections,” as legal scholar Edward B. Foley noted. Benson also indicated she would be conferring with secretaries of state in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. But she smartly recognized that whatever she and other secretaries decide, the issue will undoubtedly travel to the Supreme Court for a final determination.”

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