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Austin's had a lot of petition-fueled elections in the last few years. That could change.

A lawn sign showing support for Proposition A, which decriminalized low-level marijuana possession and banned no-knock warrants.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A lawn sign in April 2022 shows support for Proposition A in Austin, which decriminalized low-level marijuana possession and banned no-knock warrants.

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In the last few years, petitions from Austinites have put big policy changes on the ballot. Issues like police staffing, marijuana decriminalization, homelessness and even whether ride-sharing services can operate in the city all stemmed from signatures on a petition that prompted citywide elections.

That could change next year.

Austin City Council on Thursday approved a proposal to reevaluate the petition process, possibly raising the number of signatures needed and moving all petition-backed proposals to November elections.

Council Member Ryan Alter proposed the resolution, which asks an 11-person board to review whether the petition process should be changed. If the board, which will consist of Austinites appointed by council members, suggests any changes, those revisions will have to be approved by the City Council. Then, the changes would go before voters in the November 2024 election.

The threshold to get something on a citywide ballot in Austin is pretty low compared to requirements in other Texas or similarly sized cities. In Austin, if you get 20,000 verified signatures from registered voters on a petition, your petition goes before the City Council, which then decides to either adopt your proposal or put it before voters.

The city has another round of petition-backed propositions on the ballot this May: Proposition A, which would give more power to the city’s police oversight offices and Proposition B, which would rein them in.

After the May 6 election, Austin voters will have voted on 10 petition-backed ballot measures in seven years. Each election costs the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the city auditor (an entity that was itself a target of a petition-backed vote in 2018).

In the most recent round of petitions, Proposition B canvassers have been accused of misleading voters into signing their petition. Alter says the proposal, which also includes a requirement to file a letter of intent, would ferret out potentially misleading petitions.

"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 expressed a desire for representative governance," Alter said before Thursday's vote.

The resolution also suggests moving all proposition elections to November, preferably during presidential election years, with a goal of increasing voter turnout.

Austin voters typically don't turn out in droves for petition-fueled elections — even when high-profile issues are on the ballot. Austin's highest turnout in the last 10 years for a petition-backed proposal was in May 2021, when Austin voters reinstated laws banning sleeping or camping in public places. Only 22% of registered voters cast a ballot in that election. During the last presidential election in November 2020, 71% of registered voters cast a ballot.

Bill Bunch, executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance, told council members before Thursday's vote that changing the structure for petition-initiatives would be a "poke in the eye to voters." Bunch unsuccessfully campaigned to block an expansion of the city's convention center with a petition in 2019.

"Getting 20,000 signatures that are valid is not an easy task by any means," he said. "It is an important check on the power of this body and, with all due respect, we need that check and balance."

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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