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Lawmakers consider changes to local petitions and bond elections

Friday, September 23, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

It was as if they’d been studying Austin’s recent petition haps and mishaps.

State lawmakers on the House Elections Committee began hearing testimony Thursday on possible legislative changes to how local petition ballots and bond elections are run. Several of the issues they focused on related to Austin’s May vote on Proposition 1 – although lawmakers did not explicitly call out the capital city.

For instance, lawmakers heard from Houston election lawyer Andy Taylor about who should be charged with crafting the ballot language for a measure initiated by petition. Taylor argued that it made no sense for the city to be tasked with that.

“We all know that when you make an election decision in 30 seconds and you’re there at the ballot box and you may not know anything about the issue, you’re going to make a judgment very quickly based on that language,” Taylor told lawmakers. “So the city has enormous power to either subliminally or explicitly cause you to maybe think something’s good or maybe think something’s bad just by the language they use.”

After Proposition 1 failed, City Council Member Don Zimmerman ended up suing the city over its ballot language, claiming the city had misled voters.

Lawmakers also batted around the idea of limiting municipal elections to November and doing away with a local election date in May. Some characterized having multiple local election dates as a version of voter disenfranchisement.

“In order for an election to really be a valid expression of the voters of the area, it needs to be held when people know about it and tend to vote. And I think the November elections is when that happens,” said state Rep. Mike Schofield of Houston.

Another issue was a city’s role in ensuring that citizens understand the ballot petition process and how to successfully submit one. Earlier this year, a local political action committee failed to notarize any of the hundreds of pages of signatures it had collected in an attempt to recall Council Member Ann Kitchen; the city clerk deemed the petition invalid.

“You can’t get more organic or grassroots than a petition process,” said state Rep. Pat Fallon of Denton. “That’s where my passion lies in – making sure we make it as easy as possible.”

Fallon said he envisioned cities having successful petition examples on their websites along with a troubleshooting form. But, Fallon conceded, he does not think a state law should require cities to do this. Instead, state representatives should encourage their local city councils to pass ordinances requiring that this information be accessible.

The committee that met Thursday will file a report on local election law and several other election topics later this year. Some of its recommendations will become bills in the 2017 legislative session.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Wing-Chi Poon (Texas State Capitol building, Austin, Texas, USA) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons. 

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