On. Nov 2, Austinites voted on Proposition A, a police staffing measure, that was put on the ballot in part through the efforts of Save Austin Now, the political action committee that drove the city’s camping ban proposition in May.
Proposition A, which would have set a hard staffing ratio for the police department, was added through an initiative petition. The petition process allows residents to put policy proposals to a vote if they receive enough support from community members and has prompted many elections in recent years.
While cities throughout Texas provide the power of petition to residents, Austin's signature requirements remain among the lowest of the state's largest cities.
In the wake of several high-profile proposition elections brought by citizens this year alone, those limits could come under scrutiny in the near future.
“The right to petition for ballot items is a very important tool, but it should be a special remedy. Governance by petition should not replace the importance of electing council members as to how we affect the will of the community. The next time we change the city charter, we should consider raising the petition bar," Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement.
Per Austin's city charter, either 20,000 voters or 5% of the city's registered voters—whichever number is smaller—are required to sign onto a petition to get a proposition on the ballot. If certified by the city clerk, the petition is forwarded to City Council to either outright approve or to order an election for the item, according to the charter.
These requirements were changed via charter amendment in 2012, which lowered the previous signature limit of 10% of registered voters.
Based on data from the city's May 2021 election, the most recent available, 5% of Austin's registered voter pool as of this spring equaled 39,641 people—meaning the 20,000-signature limit applies. Under that standard, Austin's signature requirements for petitions have long been lower than other major cities in the state.
In Houston, the state's largest city, petition limits are based on voter turnout in recent elections. The number of signatures required must total at least 15% of all votes cast in the highest-turnout mayoral election within three years of a petition's filing, according to the city charter. And a successful petition does not necessarily ensure a place on the next election ballot either; a pair of petitions verified in Houston earlier this year have yet to be put before voters.
Austin has averaged more than one citizen-initiated proposition election annually over the past decade, including 2012's successful campaign to institute the current 10-1 council system, 2016's failed vote over rideshare regulations, and measures regarding a new sports stadium and a convention center expansion in 2019.
While signature requirements for initiative petitions represent only a fraction of cities' total populations, the process has been criticized for allowing political groups access to put their proposals before voters in lower-visibility elections.
“On the face of it you say, ‘This is democracy, and if you’re against it then you must be against democracy.’ But as it plays out in many places, it is less democratic because organized interests are able to put on the ballot what they want, they’re able to organize and campaign," said Kirby Goidel, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. "It is democratic, but if the idea of democracy is that the average citizen, the average Joe and Jane gets their say on the ballot, it gets stretched."
That sentiment is shared by Adler, who believes Austin's system remains too loose.
"I think the burden to put something on the ballot is too low. I’m concerned the current petition threshold gives small numbers the ability to force a binding vote on important issues during low-turnout elections,” Adler said.
Any change to the current signature limits would have to come via an update to the city charter.
"The charter could be amended to change that requirement if the voters so wished," a city spokesperson said.
Despite Proposition A's recent defeat, SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak said the success of the petitions and the attention many recent propositions have received demonstrates a positive for political access in Austin.
"We should make it easy for people to participate, and I think the city makes it intentionally hard for people to participate meaningfully in their city government," Mackowiak said. "The ballot initiative process gives people a way to weigh in meaningfully. And I think it is, in many ways, a response to the arrogance, the lack of transparency, the lack of accountability that we see exhibited ... at City Hall."
Mark Littlefield, a local political consultant involved with both proposition elections this fall, said he has worked on several campaigns stemming from citizen petitions in the past decade-plus. While supporting the right for residents to petition their leaders, he said Austin's plethora of proposition elections and low signature limits show that "something has gone amiss here."
"If you have enough money, you can get almost anything on the ballot, and you can say anything in order to get someone’s signature on there," Littlefield said. "It’s a tool in the democracy toolbox that we don’t want to lose, but we do want to try to protect it. And that’s a conversation I think Austin has to have.”
Mackowiak also said the city's petition process should be reserved for "truly important" items. While Austin's signature limits are relatively low within Texas, he said the process is still "very difficult" and "needlessly arduous" due to the limited timeline to collect signatures and the requirement that petitions be physically signed.
Mackowiak said Save Austin Now has yet to make any decisions regarding its potential involvement in next year's elections but noted that a vote for propositions can end up counting more than speaking for a limited time at City Council meetings.
"It’s a much more meaningful way to participate in local government. It’s not the only way. You should get to know your council member; you should follow city issues; you should engage with local organizations. ... But we have found this to be a very good way for people to weigh in on important issues," he said.