The framework that Austin voters can use to petition the city to enact desired policies, make changes to the local government system and oust elected officials is now under review, and residents will have the chance to weigh in on potential updates this year.

Petitions explained

In Austin, residents may petition the city for certain actions and, if successful, have those matters decided in an election. Petitioners must collect a set amount of signatures from registered city voters in support before an election can be called.

Austin's petition types and requirements include the following:
  • Initiative petitions allow residents to enact specific policies. Initiative petitions must be signed by the lesser of 5% of registered city voters or 20,000 voters to prompt an election; the limit is now 20,000 signatures given Austin's size.
  • Referendum petitions allow residents to roll back City Council-approved policies. The 20,000-signature limit also applies for referenda.
  • Recall petitions allow residents to remove an elected official from office. Recall petitions must be signed by 10% of voters in a geographic council district for a council member or citywide for a mayor.
  • Charter amendment petitions allow residents to edit Austin's foundational government rulebook. Charter petitions are also set at the 5% or 20,000-person signature limit.
Initiative, referendum and recall petition processes are laid out in Austin's code and are now in line for possible tweaks. Those types of petition drives can take place at any time, and their accompanying elections must follow as soon as possible.

The charter amendment process and its signature limits are set in state law. Charter edits can only be considered every two years, and elections must take place on the next general city or presidential election date, whichever is sooner.

The background

Austin voters have been faced with a series of high-profile petition elections in recent years. Most recently, last May's contest between rival police oversight petitions drew criticism from some community members and officials over transparency concerns and claims that one petition's organizers aimed to confuse or mislead voters.

That situation and the past decade's near-annual petition drives and elections have prompted some calls to revise Austin's petition process. Early last year, City Council voted to establish a new resident commission to update petition rules.

Officials asked to look at revising Austin's petition signature requirements, which are much looser than those in other large Texas cities, as well as the practice of allowing petitions to be decided in lower-turnout spring or off-year elections. New transparency and ethical requirements for petition campaigns were also requested.

"We have seen misleading tactics used in these petition drives, and increasing that threshold percentage, increasing transparency and moving charter elections to November respects Austin voters who have consistently voiced a desire for more representative governance," council member Ryan Alter, author of the charter review resolution, said after its passage last March.
What's happening

The 2024 Charter Review Commission has been reviewing rules and developing possible changes Austin voters will likely be considering in this November's election. The proposals are not yet finalized, and no changes will go into place unless approved by city voters.

Commissioners' initial ideas are aimed at clarifying who's behind a petition effort and how the process plays out. Those include:
  • At least five petition organizers, who are registered Austin voters, would be required to file a formal notice of intent with the city before canvassing for signatures. The form would lay out the details of their measure and its intended purpose alongside public contact and campaign finance information, and would only be valid for three months—with an additional 90-day extension option.
  • The city clerk's office would have to create the new intent form, publicly post all submitted notices online and alert petitioners to a "safe harbor date" for wrapping up canvassing efforts before a targeted election. One of the dueling petitions in last May's election was submitted in late 2022 but ended up on the 2023 ballot after the clerk's signature verification stretched past an election deadline.
  • The petition forms used to collect voters' signatures would be required to display contact information of both petitioners and the city clerk, a description of the petition's intent, and a Spanish translation of all relevant details. Commissioners also discussed mandating a "circulator affidavit" on the forms to hold petitioners accountable for the accuracy of any signatures they submit.
"When there’s not transparency, when it’s not clear who is initiating the petition, it’s not clear what the petition does. ... In a way it kind of taints the process and it makes it harder for future petitions to be completed because then people hear about this bad petition that potentially was presented under false pretenses—which I believe we have seen," Commissioner Cynthia Van Maanen, who also serves as the Travis County Democratic Party's executive director, said during a Dec. 14 meeting.

Petition signature limits and tying petitions to certain election dates to boost awareness and turnout are also being considered. Council had asked the commission to look into those topics given the significant cost of holding additional elections and the question of whether off-cycle elections are fully representative of residents' views.

Options floated by commissioners for initiatives and referenda included:
  • Keeping the 20,000-signature threshold in place and requiring petition elections to be held only in November in even-numbered years
  • Keeping the 20,000-signature threshold for November petition elections in even-numbered years while allowing petitions that earn more than 50,000 signatures—signaling an urgent issue—to be up for a vote in the next possible election
  • Changing the signature threshold to 5% of registered city voters and holding petitions to November elections in even-numbered years (Today, the 5% limit would require more than 29,400 signatures.)
While debating those options, commissioners also said they don't want rule changes to bring unintentional consequences, such as encouraging residents to pursue general policy changes via structural charter amendments rather than initiatives or referenda—a situation taking place in Round Rock.

“I think that it’s important to not overwhelm voters, to not force an election that’s not going to be representative of the people of Austin. But also, I am a little concerned about the fact that it incentivizes, potentially, charter amendments over other more direct policy options and more workable policy options," Van Maanen said.

The commission also looked at adjusting the lower requirements for City Council recall elections. Some commissioners said they believe the 10% bar that's now in place is too low and open for abuse, especially in areas with fewer registered voters, while others said new rules shouldn't make such efforts more challenging.

Van Maanen proposed setting a limit of 35% of voters within a specific district to advance a council member's recall while keeping the mayor's recall limit at 10%, including signatures from a segment of all 10 council districts. She said those options were intended to increase equity for the process given varying voter counts between districts.

Other issues under consideration include changes to the lettering of ballot propositions. All of Austin's petition elections start with a "Proposition A," and some commissioners support cycling through the entire alphabet across multiple elections to avoid confusion over repetitive naming.

Get involved

The commission didn't reach consensus on those issues or others raised in December and will continue their deliberations in 2024 starting Jan. 18.

The charter commission also plans to hold public hearings over the proposed rule changes before they are presented to voters for consideration.

For now, Austinites can take a survey and share written comments about the petition updates on the city's public engagement website.