What does it take to get a citizen initiative on the ballot in Austin?

After enough signatures were gathered to get Prop A on the November ballot, it failed to pass on Election Day.

Under current standards in Austin, a citizen initiative petition must be signed by 20,000 qualified voters - or 5% of qualified voters - to be approved for the ballot.

"This is one of the few ways where voters and citizens have a way of directly inputting their views onto the ballot," said Brian Smith, professor of political science at St. Edward’s University.

Prop A was approved for the ballot with more than 25,000 valid signatures, but it was overwhelmingly rejected by voters on Election Day with more than 102,000 votes cast against.

"My personal view is that it’s too easy to put things on the ballot," said Mayor Adler in an interview with FOX 7 Tuesday night. "With nearly 70%, potentially over 70%, against this item, I think that’s really telling."

At the request of Mayor Adler, a 2019 city audit found that Austin requires a lower number of signatures than the six largest cities in Texas, with the exception of El Paso. Austin also requires a lower number of signatures than five out-of-state cities reviewed, with the exception of Denver, CO. 

The current threshold for ballot approval in Austin has been in place since November 2012. Before then, signatures from 10% of qualified voters were required. That threshold was then lowered to 5% - or 20,000 signatures - when voters approved an amendment to the City Charter.

However, the 2019 city audit noted that 20,000 was just about 3% of Austin voters, a percentage that is expected to continue to decrease. Therefore, the 5% appears to be irrelevant, unless Austin’s population drops. In the last five years, most initiatives approved for the ballot have later failed to pass.

"I think there’s eventually going to be ballot exhaustion in this city," said Mayor Adler.

An exception was Prop B, which was certified - then approved - by voters in May 2021. 

"Citizen initiatives have had some success, like the homeless initiative, and they’ve had some failures," said Smith. "One of the big things to note about citizen initiatives is when they involve money - that’s one of the big reasons why this one lost." 

Smith said he doesn’t see the harm in the current system as long as there are other items on the ballot bringing voters to the polls.

"That’s one of the tradeoffs of a democracy; if you’re going to have a democratic system it means elections and lots of them," he said. " I think at the end of the day democracy worked, the voters decided, it wasn’t done behind closed doors, it was put on the ballot through a democratic process and defeated through a democratic process."
SUBSCRIBE: Daily Newsletter | YouTube
FOLLOW: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter