Why It Takes 20,000 Voter Signatures to Propose a New City Law

Jan 21, 2016

A local group funded by Uber and Lyft has turned into Austin City Hall a petition with the signatures of 23-thousand local voters, with the hopes of putting an ordinance on ride-hailing regulations it’s written to a public vote. To do that, a petition must have at least 20,000 valid signatures from local voters.

But that 20,000-signature threshold isn’t just a magic number for a city petition: It’s also a state threshold.

According to state law, it takes signatures from either five percent of a city's registered voters or 20,000 voters, whichever is lower, to get a change to a city charter on the ballot. A city charter lays out the basic framework for how the city operates - kind of like a constitution. An example of a change in the charter is 2012’s 10-1 proposal to create geographic representation districts for the Austin City Council.

But the 20,000 needed by Uber and Lyft to introduce a new ordinance were totally different. Ordinances are more like laws passed by Congress. They don't go in the charter. So, which state law says Uber and Lyft also needed those 20,000 signatures?

“Well, there’s really not one,” says Bennett Sandlin, head of the Texas Municipal League.

Some home-rule cities – cities with more than 5,000 people – are allowed to petition for processes of initiative, referendum and recall, Sandlin says.

“There’s no state law that allows citizens in home-rule cities to petition. It’s entirely governed by each home-rule city’s charter, and Austin happens to have procedures…and so that’s where this comes from. And, if it’s not in the city’s charter, then that city doesn’t have that process.”

So, for example, voters can start a petition for an initiative, as is the case with the ride-hailing petition; a charter referendum, like the 10-1 council reorganization in 2012; or a recall petition to hold new elections for an elected official, which Council Member Ann Kitchen is apparently facing.

Home-rule cities’ charters set the minimum number of signatures for an ordinance.

If a city wants to change its charter, as in the case of 10-1, then petitioners would have to reach the state’s 20,000-voter minimum.

Austin once required 10 percent of voters, which would now be around 50,000 signatures. But, a petition-backed effort in 2012 brought that number down to 20,000.

So, no matter what you want to change in Austin, you now have a nice, even number to aim for. Still, it’s a lot of work for the  Austin City Clerk, whose job is to count them all.