Several proposed changes to city election processes for resident-backed ballot measures have been laid out by Austin’s 2024 Charter Review Commission as requested last year by City Council.

The commission's recommendations, developed over recent months, would adjust certain rules related to the four types of petitions Austinites can use to influence certain activity at City Hall. Successful resident petitions can be adopted either directly by council, or more often, through a civic election.

The potential updates now on the table require voter approval to become effective. Officials will decide which proposals to include in the November election following more review this spring.

The overview

Council asked the charter commission to look over Austin's current rules for petitions, including the thresholds for the number of signatures that must be collected. In order to be validated for an election or City Council approval, petition campaigns must first earn support from thousands of city voters.

Petition types include:
  • Initiatives that enact specific policies. Initiative petitions must be signed by either of 5% of the city's voter pool or 20,000 voters, whichever is smaller; the 20,000-signature limit applies today.
  • Referenda that repeal city ordinances. Referendum petitions must also meet the 20,000-signature limit.
  • Recalls that remove City Council members from office. Recall petitions must be signed by 10% of an official's constituency.
  • Charter amendments that edit the City Charter. Such petitions must also meet the 5% or 20,000-person signature limit—a requirement set in state law rather than local rules.
The commission's recent work followed a series of elections featuring resident petition measures over the past decade, most recently competing policy oversight measures last spring. The possible updates are also being considered given Austin's relatively loose signature requirements compared to other large Texas cities.

The details

Since last year, the charter commission debated many petition-related issues and collected public feedback on possible changes.

The council-appointed body forwarded nine separate recommendations March 21 that voters could consider as individual ballot items in the fall.

They include:
  • Changing the lettering system for Austin's ballot propositions to cycle through the entire alphabet across elections, rather than beginning with a "Proposition A" every time. Commissioners said the change would help avoid voter confusion.
  • Changing the signature benchmark for valid petitions to 3.5% of all qualified voters in Austin. Commissioners called their proposed limit a "durable threshold" to keep pace with population growth over time.
  • Requiring petitioners to file a publicly available "notice of intent"—including contact details, a description of the petition's purpose, campaign finance information and a sworn statement about the accuracy of the information provided—before launching a campaign. Commissioners said the update would improve transparency.
  • Limiting votes on initiative and charter proposals to municipal general elections, or November elections in even-numbered years. Commissioners said the change could boost voter awareness and turnout.
  • Resolving conflicts between competing ballot measures that both pass based on the item receiving the most votes. Commissioners said the change offered a "clear principle" for settling differences over similar items.
  • Setting new campaign finance standards for petitioners behind recall elections, in line with council candidate requirements. Commissioners said recall efforts should be subject to the same public scrutiny as other political campaigns.
  • Upping the threshold for City Council recall petitions from 10% to 15% of the targeted official's constituency—while keeping the citywide mayoral recall threshold at 10%. Commissioners noted the original limit was set for at-large council members elected by the whole city, rather than the current geographic system with smaller council districts.
  • Requiring City Council approval for the appointment of Austin's city attorney, and allowing council to move to fire the city attorney. Commissioners said the change is geared toward accountability at City Hall and that most Texas cities already require such council approval.
  • Creating a new assistant city attorney position to work directly with City Council on policy issues.
Diving in deeper

All but one of the commission's proposals were backed by a majority of its members. That recommendation—the new 3.5% signature level—was opposed by a commission work group and initially voted down by the whole body this year before advancing 6-5 in March.

Considering a new signature threshold was one of several suggestions raised by council members when they created the charter commission last year.

The new 3.5% bar would make Austin’s limits slightly stricter by bumping the requirement from today’s level of 20,000 to an estimated 22,437, based on registered voter totals provided by Hays, Travis and Williamson counties in March.

The proposed threshold could also be subject to frequent movement. The calculation of “qualified voters”—Austin’s total number of registered voters minus those on the counties' suspense lists—often changes as new voters arrive in town or current voters resolve any registration issues. Commissioners said those calculations could influence the approach, and timing, of petition campaigns in the future.

What else?

Based on public feedback to the commission this year, many respondents—most of whom identified as frequent voters aged 26 to 55—believe Austin holds too many elections and that they don’t understand many ballot items.

Most who weighed in said they supported some new ethical, transparency and clarity standards for petitions, but only 22% said they favored changing signature thresholds.

What's next

The work of the 2024 Charter Review Commission formally ended in March with their ratification of a report on their activities and proposed petition changes.

Members plan to present their recommendations to council mid-April. Officials will then decide how to handle the proposals and whether to call an election for some or all of the items.

One more thing

While the topic fell outside their scope of their work for now, commissioners also suggested that City Council or future charter review boards consider:
  • Setting a "ceiling" for City Council district populations, and creating new districts to expand the council dais if those limits are reached
  • Creating a "democracy dollar," or campaign finance voucher, program that voters previously rejected
  • Establishing an independent ethics commission with greater oversight powers. The concept was also recommended by a 2018 charter review body and raised again this year, but wasn't acted on
  • Limiting campaign contributions from outside Austin city limits
  • Creating a public voucher system to financially support local news organizations
  • Promoting proportional voting privileges for Austin on regional planning bodies, such as the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization
  • Allowing referenda to be submitted after the city ordinance targeted for repeal goes into effect
  • Making several changes to the recall system aimed at timing, representation and allowing for immediate removal in "extreme circumstances"