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May 2021 Special Election Ballot Propositions: Voter Resource
Beginning April 19, Austin voters will be asked to weigh in on a host of city issues, including eight propositions of varying degrees of complexity. This spring, we have decoded the city’s ballot items and collected links to our coverage of the issues to help our readers get informed before they head to the polls. We will continue to add stories throughout the month, so be sure to check back for the latest information.
Those who need a refresher or introduction on things like voting etiquette, where to vote and background on this year’s May election can scroll down to our Special Election and Voter FAQs and Tools sections.
Election Day is May 1, with early voting taking place from April 19-27.
Ballot Language: Shall the City Charter be amended to give the Austin Firefighters Association, Local 975 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the authority to require the City to participate in binding arbitration of all issues in dispute with the Association if the City and the Association reach impasse in collective bargaining negotiations?
Translation: This proposition would allow either side to call for binding arbitration during negotiations between the city and firefighters. That’s not currently an option under the current system, which allows either side to call a halt to negotiations instead.
Ballot Language: Shall an ordinance be adopted that would create a criminal offense and a penalty for sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in and near the Downtown area and the area around the University of Texas campus; create a criminal offense and penalty for solicitation, defined as requesting money or another thing of value, at specific hours and locations or for solicitation in a public area that is deemed aggressive in manner; create a criminal offense and penalty for camping in any public area not designated by the Parks and Recreation Department?
Translation: Despite the vague name that appears on the ballot, Austinites are most likely to be familiar with Prop B. The petition-initiated ballot item would ban camping in the city once again, reversing a July 2019 decision by City Council that has led to a more visible homeless presence in the city and a push by Council to tackle the issue in a more systematic way at City Hall. A vote in favor of this proposition would reinstate the city’s no sit/lie ordinance and ban on public camping. That means that sitting and lying down on public property (like sidewalks) would be illegal and subject to police enforcement Downtown, in West Campus and in some parts of East Austin. The ordinance would also limits panhandling from 7:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m.
Ballot Language: Shall the city charter be amended to allow for a Director of Police Oversight to be appointed or removed in a manner established by City Council ordinance, with duties that include the responsibility to ensure transparency and accountability as it relates to policing?
Translation: If approved, control of the Office of Police Oversight will move from the city manager to City Council.
Ballot Language: Shall the City Charter be amended to transition the election for mayor from gubernatorial election years to presidential election years, providing that the mayor elected in 2022 will serve a 2-year term and then mayoral elections will occur on the same date as presidential elections starting in 2024?
Translation: This one is fairly straightforward: A “yes” vote will shift mayoral elections in Austin to coincide with presidential elections. November elections that also have a president on the ballot have much higher voter turnout than those without
Ballot Language: Shall the City Charter be amended to provide for the use of ranked choice voting in city elections, if such voting is permitted by state law?
Translation: In our current system, any local candidate who does not earn more than 51 percent of the vote participates in a separate runoff election with the runner-up in that race. This ballot measure would change that system so that voters would rank the candidates they vote for. Those rankings will be used in cases where no candidate wins a majority of the vote, bypassing the need for a runoff election.
Ballot Language: Shall the City Charter be amended to change the form of city government from ‘council-manager’ to ‘strong mayor-council,’ which will eliminate the position of professional city manager and designate an elected mayor as the chief administrative and executive officer of the city with veto power over all legislation which includes the budget; and with sole authority to hire and fire most department heads and direct staff; and with no articulated or stated charter authority to require the mayor to implement Council decisions.
Translation: Currently, Austin’s mayor has no more power than the other City Council members, aside from a few administrative details like running meetings and the fact that, as the only at-large position, the mayor is more recognizable than other Council members. This ballot measure would change that, giving the mayor veto power over the rest of Council and putting him or her in charge of running the city. Right now, a city manager (who is not elected) runs the city based on the direction of City Council.
Ballot Language: Shall the City Charter be amended to provide for an additional geographic council district which will result in 11 council members elected from single member districts?
Translation: This proposition is fairly straightforward, though the consequences may not be. If Prop F passes and Prop G is approved, it would add another City Council district, increasing representation on the dais and ensuring that there are an odd number of votes. However, if Prop G is approved on its own while Prop F fails, it may increase representation, but will also create an even number of votes on the dais, which could make things complicated.
Ballot Language: Shall the City Charter be amended to adopt a public campaign finance program, which requires the city clerk to provide up to two $25 vouchers to every registered voter who may contribute them to candidates for city office who meet the program requirements?
Translation: This city-funded program would distribute $25 per voter, per Council race in an attempt to level the playing field in local elections, in which wealthier donors and areas usually dominate campaign donations. Under this scenario, voters can pledge “democracy dollars” to the candidates of their choice instead of using their own money.
While other jurisdictions were already holding elections on May 1, Austin wasn’t planning to do so until citizen-led petitions were validated by the city clerk. Under state law, anyone can compel a charter election or referendum by submitting a petition signed by 5 percent of voters in the city, or 20,000 people, whichever is less. Once that is done, City Council has the option of adopting the contents of the petition as law or setting an election at the next available election day, in the case of amendments to the city code. In the case of petitions that contain charter amendments, an election must be set.
This particular election features seven propositions that were the result of petitions. Propositions D, E, F, G, and H are all charter amendments from a petition drive by the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform. Proposition B, which would change the city code to reinstate a camping ban, is the result of a petition drive by the Save Austin Now PAC. And Proposition A is the result of signatures gathered by the Austin Firefighters Association.
Under state law, the city charter can only be changed through voter approval and charter elections may only be held every two years. Because the election already had a number of charter amendments, Council voted to include its own idea for changing the city charter – that is Propositions C.
The city charter is the city’s governing document. As explained above, it can only be changed by voters and that can only be done, at most, every two years. On the other hand, the city code can be (and is!) changed constantly by Council via ordinance. The charter establishes a framework for how the city is run, including things like how to conduct petitions, how many members are on Council, and what are the responsibilities of elected officials.
The city code, on the other hand, is a morass of laws covering every local issue you can think of, from speed limits and zoning to environmental codes. The city code is the way that the city government communicates its intent to Austinites. A good comparison might be the difference between changing the constitution and passing a law.
- April 1: Last day to register to vote
- Check here to see if you are registered to vote
- April 19: First day of in-person early voting
- April 20: Last day to apply for ballot by mail
- April 27: Last day of in-person early voting
- May 1: Election day
Where do I vote in person?
In Travis County, registered voters may cast their ballots at any voting location, both during early voting and on Election Day. You can find a list of those locations and voting times on the website of the Travis County Clerk’s Office. Once the election is underway, the clerk’s office also hosts a map that includes wait times at locations.
What do I need to know on voting day?
In order to cast a ballot, residents must be registered to vote, which can be confirmed online. Texans not previously registered can do so online, though that must be done 30 days prior to the election date (for this election, that was April 1, but there is no harm in registering for the next election, if you missed this deadline!).
In general, voters in Texas must bring photo ID to the polls. Under these rules, a photo ID can be a Texas driver’s license, Texas election identification certificate, Texas personal identification card, Texas handgun license, U.S. military card (with a photo), U.S. citizenship certificate (with a photo) or a U.S. passport. Voters aged 18-69 years old may use a form of ID that is expired, if that expiration date is four years old or less. Voters 70 and older may use IDs that have expired more than four years ago. Registered voters who are not able to obtain a photo ID can vote by signing a Voter’s Declaration of Reasonable Impediment or Difficulty form along with providing a non-photo ID that includes their address.
There are a number of common-sense rules that tend to be posted at your polling location. This memo from the Texas director of elections does a good job of running through those rules. In short: firearms, electioneering, collecting signatures on a petition, and wireless devices aren’t allowed within the 100-foot markers at each polling location. Electioneering is actively campaigning for something on the ballot, and that 100-foot perimeter expands to 1,000 feet if you are doing it via amplified sound. Wireless devices include cell phones, cameras, tablets, laptops, and sound recorders. However, some exceptions are made for people with disabilities.
How do I decide to vote?
Obviously, that’s up to you, but there are several ways to get informed about the issues that will be on the ballot. In addition to our coverage of the election, several outlets around town have information on the election. (Note: The Austin Monitor does not endorse any of these endorsements, though we do read them.)
Endorsements (as they become available)
Guides (as they become available)
Why should I vote?
Austin has a great record when it comes to voter registration – more than 97 percent of Travis County residents are registered to vote. However, we tend to fall short when it comes to local elections.
We generally do OK in presidential elections. In Travis County, the 2020 November election saw turnout just slightly over 71 percent of all registered voters. But in May 2019, only 6 percent of registered voters in Travis County bothered to vote.
Local elections have the potential to fundamentally change the way Austin operates. With a major shift in how the city is governed (Prop F), a possible new Council district (Prop G) and a potential ban on camping (Prop B) all on the ballot, every vote counts.
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