Austin citizens may submit initiative petitions, referendum petitions, recall petitions, or charter amendment petitions.

General Information: Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

Initiative, referendum, and recall are inherent home rule powers that are reserved for exclusive use by local voters in order to provide direct remedies in unusual situations.  There is no constitutional or statutory authority for initiative, referendum, or recall.  These powers are unique to home rule cities (such as Austin), and they are not available to voters at any other level of government, including the state.

Initiative is a procedure under which local voters directly propose (initiate) legislation.  Citizen lawmaking through the initiative process allows local voters to circumvent the city council by direct ballot box action on new ordinances that have some level of support in the community, but which the council declines to enact.

The initiative process begins with circulation of a petition setting forth the text of the desired ordinance.  The petitioners must then obtain the number of voter signatures needed to compel the city council to submit the ordinance to the people at a citywide election.  The city clerk must check the completed petition and certify it if it meets all charter requirements.  If so, the city council has only two options: (1) adopt the proposed ordinance; or (2) call an election on the ordinance.  If, at the election, the proposed ordinance passes by  majority  vote, the ordinance is put into effect.

Referendum is a procedure under which local voters can repeal existing ordinances that the council declines to rescind by its own action.  The procedures for compelling the city council to call a referendum election are the same as for initiative elections: a petition calling for an election to repeal a certain ordinance is circulated, the petition is checked and certified if it is sufficient, and the city council must then either repeal the ordinance by its own action or call an election at which the people can vote to repeal it. 

Austin’s city charter requires that a referendum petition must be submitted “prior to the effective date of any ordinance which is subject to referendum.” Typically, the effective date of most ordinances is 10 business days following adoption.

Recall is a process by which local voters can remove a mayor or members of the city council before the expiration of their terms. The procedures for compelling the city council to order a recall election are the same as for initiative and referendum elections: a petition calling for the recall of a named mayor or council member is circulated, the petition is checked and certified if it is sufficient, and the named mayor or council member must either resign within 5 days or the city council must order an election to be held in the named council member’s single-member district, or to be held citywide in the case of a mayor.  If the majority vote is for recall, the mayor's or council member’s office is immediately declared vacant.  If the majority vote is against recall, the mayor or council member continues in office.

General Information: Charter Amendment

In addition to initiative and referendum and recall, direct lawmaking by local voters can be accomplished through amendments to the charter document itself.  Under Section 9.004 of the Texas Local Government Code, citizens can compel the city council to call an election on a proposed charter amendment.  The process required is submission of a valid petition signed by 5% of the qualified voters of the city or 20,000, whichever number is less.

Requirements for Percentages/Numbers of Valid Signatures on Various Types of Petitions:

Each type of petition (initiative, referendum, recall, charter amendment) has a required percentage of qualified voters that must sign the petition (in a valid fashion) in order for it to be certified sufficient.

Type of Petition

Signatures Required

Initiative; referendum

5% of qualified voters of the city or 20,000, whichever number is the smaller

Recall

For mayor, 10% of qualified voters of the city

For a council member, 10% of qualified voters from that council member’s single-member district

Charter amendment

5% of qualified voters of the city or 20,000, whichever number is the smaller

 

State law sets the method by which the City Clerk calculates required numbers of signatures for particular petitions. [See Texas Election Code, §277.0024]  For initiative, referendum, charter amendment, and mayoral recall petitions, the City Clerk’s office does the following:

Contacts the voter registrars in Travis County, Hays County, and Williamson County (as the City of Austin extends into all three counties) to obtain (1) the number of registered voters; and (2) the number of “suspense list” voters.

  • Note that these numbers will change daily as citizens register to vote.
  • Note that the Travis County voter registrar will supply  the requested data for “full purpose” and for “limited purpose” annexation areas.
  • Contact information for Travis County is Amanda Katzer, Post Office Box 149325, Austin, Texas 78714, Phone: 512-854-9473. Amanda.Katzer@traviscountytx.gov
  • Contact information for Hays County is Jennifer Anderson, 712 South Stagecoach Trail, Suite 1945, San Marcos, Texas 78666-9914, Phone: 512-393-7307. janderson@co.hays.tx.us
  • Contact information for Williamson County is Julie Seippel, Post Office Box 209, Georgetown, Texas 78627, Phone: 512-943-1631. jseippel@wilco.org

Subtracts the number on the suspense list from the total number of registered voters in order to obtain the number of qualified voters.

  • Note that a person’s name is put on the suspense list to designate that the voter registrar does not have a current county address for that person. [See Texas Election Code, §13.146(b)]   Other statutes speak to reasons for inclusion on the suspense list, requirements for maintaining and supplying the suspense list, removal from the suspense list, and purging from the voter roll on November 30th of the even year after the voter has been on the suspense list for two general elections. [See Texas Election Code, §15.081, See Texas Election Code, §16.032]
  • Note that the “S” designation (indicating the voter is on the suspense list) does not preclude a citizen from signing a petition, or preclude a citizen from voting when proper requirements are met.
  • Note that the “S” designation does, however, lower the number of signatures required on a petition.

Multiplies the number of qualified voters times the percentage required for a particular petition to obtain the number of valid signatures which must be on that petition.

As of January 10, 2020, the voter numbers were as follows:

County / Voter Status Registered Voters Suspense List Voters Qualified Voters
Williamson - Full Purpose 31,987 6,025 25,962
Williamson - Limited Purpose 17 1 16
Williamson - ETJ 10,119 1,738 8,381
Hays - Full Purpose 177 3 174
Hays - Limited Purpose 0 0 0
Hays - ETJ 433 34 399
Travis - Full Purpose 577,758 53,079 524,679
Travis - Limited Purpose 8,735 381 8,354
Travis - ETJ 86,884 5,996 80,888
Bastrop - Full Purpose 0 0 0
Bastrop - Limited Purpose 0 0 0
Bastrop - ETJ 994 89 905

 

The methodology of the City Clerk’s office remains the same for council member recall petitions, but since an election of that type would be only from the council member’s single-member district, voter numbers would only be obtained for that district.

As of January 10, 2020, the voter numbers were as follows:

District Registered Voters Suspense List Voters Qualified Voters
District 1 55,443 4,835 50,608
District 2 45,565 3,841 41,724
District 3 55,704 6,308 49,396
District 4 34,094 3,311 30,783
District 5 73,205 6,538 66,667
District 6 61,435 8,984 52,451
District 7 67,375 5,857 61,518
District 8 65,178 4,128 61,050
District 9 88,267 10,608 77,659
District 10 63,673 4,698 58,975
Mayor 609,939 59,108 550,831

 

Determining Eligibility to Sign Petitions and to Vote in Certain Elections

"Qualified" voter means a duly and timely registered voter.

In a general election for MUNICIPAL OFFICERS (mayor and council members from districts), and in any runoff election which results from the general election, the following applies:

  • Qualified voters in the full purpose annexation area (meaning inside the city limits) may vote citywide for mayor, and may vote for a council member within the voter's particular council district.
  • Qualified voters in the limited purpose annexation areas (meaning not fully annexed into the city limits) may vote for mayor, and may vote for a council member within the voter's particular council district.
  • Voters in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of the city may NOT vote for mayor, and may NOT vote for council members.

In a special election for CHARTER AMENDMENTS, the following applies:

  • Qualified voters in the full purpose annexation area (meaning inside the city limits) may vote on charter amendments.
  • Qualified voters in the limited purpose annexation areas (meaning not fully annexed into the city limits) may vote on charter amendments.
  • Qualified voters in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of the city may ONLY vote if the proposition that is submitted to the voters involves an adoption of or change to a charter provision that would apply to the ETJ.

In a special election for RECALL of the mayor or a council member, the following applies:

  • Qualified voters in the full purpose annexation area (meaning inside the city limits) may vote on recall of mayor, and may vote on recall of a council member within the voter's particular council district.
  • Qualified voters in the limited purpose annexation areas (meaning not fully annexed into the city limits) may vote on recall of mayor, and may vote on recall of a council member within the voter's particular council district.
  • Voters in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of the city may NOT vote on recall of mayor, and may NOT vote on recall of council members.

In a special election on an INITIATIVE petition measure, the following applies:

  • Qualified voters in the full purpose annexation area (meaning inside the city limits) may vote on an initiative measure.
  • Qualified voters in the limited purpose annexation areas (meaning not fully annexed into the city limits) may vote on an initiative measure.
  • Qualified voters in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of the city may ONLY vote if the proposition that is submitted to the voters involves an adoption of or change to an ordinance that would apply to the ETJ.

In a special election on a REFERENDUM petition measure, the following applies:

  • Qualified voters in the full purpose annexation area (meaning inside the city limits) may vote on a referendum measure.
  • Qualified voters in the limited purpose annexation areas (meaning not fully annexed into the city limits) may vote on a referendum measure.
  • Qualified voters in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of the city may ONLY vote if the proposition that is submitted to the voters involves an adoption of or change to an ordinance that would apply to the ETJ.

In a special election on a BOND proposition, the following applies:

  • Qualified voters in the full purpose annexation area (meaning inside the city limits) may vote on a bond proposition.
  • Qualified voters in the limited purpose annexation areas (meaning not fully annexed into the city limits) may NOT vote on a bond proposition.
  • Qualified voters in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of the city may ONLY vote if the proposition that is submitted to the voters involves an adoption of or change to an ordinance that would apply to the ETJ.