Dogs to roads to human rights — Austin’s direct democracy decades

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

In early November, Austin voters nixed a proposal to rethink the Austin Convention Center and skirmishes at the ballot box are surely brewing for the next election over land use, school closures and the relentless roll-up of affordable places to build lives, families and businesses amid skyrocketing property taxes.

Is “direct democracy,” the thumbs up or down by voters on measures put on the ballot by petition or city council action, the answer? That’s a debate in and of itself and in fact Austin, like many other cities, is moving toward tougher requirements to get local measures on the ballot. Which comes after the city reduced the signature requirements from 10 to 5 percent of registered voters just in 2012. Why? A good question.

These are issues among the many we intend to explore here at Urbānitūs as we traverse the new political territory of ever more assertive cities and regions. What we call “geo-urbanism.” Toward that, co-founder Bryan Jones is introducing his new column that begins with thoughts on so-called “ranked choice voting,” or RCV. Used by more than 20 cities, most recently joined by New York, it’s invigorating local democracies in many places and now Maine is road testing this new means to broaden voter choice. Other states are expected to follow. 

There’s much to debate and consider. But before that, being a publication committed to pulling back the start dates of the civic history we’re examining, we decided to survey just where where Austin has been on this long march and evolution of direct democracy. Austin voters passed an ordinance in 1953 to enable local referenda and since then by our count there have been 381 ballot measures put to local voters. Most direct ballot measures, of course, are less than dramatic. The majority comprise the tedious but essential votes to approve bond funding for roads, bridges, storm water systems, parks, firehouses and more. Sometimes the city council is the initiator, asking the voters for a direct say for legal or political reasons. Often, it’s angry and animated citizens who decide to “fight City Hall” with signature drives that bring forth these exercises in civic expression.

Parsing which measures are routine bond financing as compared with those that deal with policy is a little tricky. Is a bond measure to build affordable housing as routine as a sewer bond, for example? But we tried to make the cut. And by our count, 264 of the measures over the last six decades asked voters to endorse bond financing that was largely routine, though sometimes significant. On 117 occasions, voters were asked to make their voices heard on policy: how to elect the council, whether to let street vendors work in front of the University of Texas or whether and how to develop the urban shoreline of the Colorado River bisecting the city.

Somewhat arbitrarily, we started our sift through the city records beginning with the vote in 1950, a typical year of measures for civic infrastructure. But what has ensued is far from mundane: land use measures to build what we now know as Town Lake, the Long Center for the Performing Arts; the  decision to abandon Austin’s old city airport and build Austin-Bergstrom International. These are just a few in the long series of direct citizen decisions. 

Turnout numbers will be as interesting to some readers as anything. Often they are pretty discouraging. But the tenacity of civic activists is inspiring. Citizen initiatives to end the practice of citywide council races, whereby for decades the city was run almost exclusively by leaders from Northwest Austin, is a case study in persistence. Activists demanding a more representative council gathered signatures to get measures to do so five times — in 1978, 1985, 1988, 1994 and 2002 — before finally succeeding in 2012.

And so we’ve compiled our own survey of this history, both as a reference and context for our work that lies ahead. We’re sure there are omissions and the sometimes ambiguous records may have caused us to overlook an important nuance or two. We’re sure readers will let us know where and what we need to amplify. And we will do so.

But before then, please take a look at our brief survey of Austin’s history of direct democracy.

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