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Auditor finds ballot petitioners in Austin have it easier than most other cities

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

A statewide analysis of election regulations finds that Austin is one of the easiest cities in Texas to place a ballot measure in front of voters, with the city’s growing population making it easier every year.

A report released earlier this month by the Office of the City Auditor found that every major city in Texas, other than El Paso, requires a higher number of petition signatures from registered voters than Austin does.

In Austin’s rules for ballot measures, which were last updated in 2012, petitioners for three of the four types of eligible questions – initiatives to enact an ordinance, referendums to block an ordinance and charter amendments – must collect the lesser of either 20,000 voters or 5 percent of the total registered voter population. For a citywide mayoral recall, the number is 10 percent of total voters, while for individual City Council members it is 10 percent of the registered voters in the applicable Council district.

That wording effectively means ballot petitioners need only worry about the 20,000 number, since the 5 percent threshold would rise well above 20,000 signatures. When the language was updated in 2012, 20,000 signatures represented about 4 percent of all registered voters, with that ratio now around 3 percent based on the city’s strong population growth in the past seven years.

There are discrete differences in how other major cities in Texas decide how many signatures are needed to place a ballot measure before voters, but the auditor’s analysis found the effective number is just over 40,000 in Houston; over 65,000 in Dallas; over 78,000 in San Antonio; and over 90,000 in Fort Worth. El Paso has a straight 5 percent threshold similar to Austin’s, though petitioners there can be required to gather the minimum number of signatures twice before the question goes to voters if the city council doesn’t approve its placement on the ballot after the initial petition validation. Houston and Dallas also gave petitioners less time – only 30 days in Dallas – to collect the required number of signatures, compared to the 180-day window in Austin. The three other Texas cities didn’t specify time restrictions.

The study also found that of five peer cities across the nation, only Denver has easier petition signature requirements than Austin.

The auditor’s study was conducted following a request earlier this year by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison to find out how the city’s ballot petition and recall requirements compare to other peer cities. Last week a political action committee called Our Town Austin was formed to launch petition drives in an attempt to recall Adler, Harper-Madison, and Council members Pio Renteria, Ann Kitchen, Paige Ellis and Kathie Tovo.

During the 2015-19 period studied, the auditors found that five of the six petition actions begun by voters were successful in getting on the ballot, with only a recall drive against Kitchen failing because the city clerk found the petition had not been properly notarized.

Three of the remaining five efforts failed during elections in 2016 and 2018, with the remaining two headed to voters next month.

The auditor found the 2016 measure required a special election that cost the city $645,000, while the two measures decided in 2018 were included during a general election and didn’t have any measurable extra cost.

Last year the city’s Charter Review Commission recommended two possible changes to the citizen-led initiative process, but neither were selected to be decided on by voters.

One recommendation would have allowed up to 180 days from the start date of an ordinance’s effectiveness for petitioners to file and begin to gather signatures for a ballot measure to nullify that ordinance. Currently those petitions must be filed before the effective date.

The other recommendation would have required petitioners for recall elections to notify the city clerk of a signature drive and state why the effort was started, and raise the number of in-district signatures to 20 percent of all registered voters in that district.

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