WTF: Ballot initiatives

As the 2022 election season gears up, Asheville residents can expect to see candidates for Asheville City Council and other local positions on their ballots. But city voters may also have the opportunity to weigh in on citizen-led ballot initiatives, which have yet to be finalized for this election cycle.

In the latest installment of our recurring “WTF?” feature — Want The Facts — Xpress looks into the practice of local ballot initiatives to answer some of the biggest questions about the practice.

What is a ballot initiative? 

According to the N.C. State Board of Elections ballot initiatives are written petitions signed by citizens that can compel local governments to make new laws. Asheville’s ballot initiative process can be found in Section 83 of the city’s charter and states that 15% of registered voters in the city must physically sign on to a proposed ordinance — digital signatures are not allowed — for it to be placed onto a ballot. Petitioners have one year from the date of filing for the initiative to collect signatures, or until the last day of candidate filing, whichever comes first.  As of Dec. 15, about 74,000 voters lived in Asheville city limits, putting the required number of signatures at just under 11,100.

A ballot initiative is different from a referendum in that it allows citizens to propose a new statute or constitutional amendment. A referendum allows voters to decide whether to uphold or repeal an existing law.

How do ballot initiatives become law?

Ballot initiatives follow a two-step process to become law. First, petitioners must collect the minimum number of signatures, which are then verified by Buncombe County Election Services. Local election officials check that each signature corresponds to a registered voter within the city limits and ensure that their addresses match their voter registration.

If enough signatures are verified, the proposed ordinance is placed on the ballot without alteration to be voted on by the public at large. This process can be initiated at any time, but if the ordinance is submitted within 90 days of a general election, then the measure will be placed on that ballot. Otherwise, the city must call a special election to consider the matter. If a majority of registered voters approves the measure, the ballot initiative becomes law.

Do other cities have ballot initiatives?

Most North Carolina city charters include provisions for some kind of process by which citizens can amend the charter through a petition, says Asheville City Attorney Brad Branham. But Asheville’s ballot initiative process is somewhat unique in that it permits citizens to submit a petition for a proposed ordinance of any kind, not merely a charter amendment.

“This means that the field of potential local law changes is much broader than in most cities,” Branham says. “This broad authority to submit a petition for any ordinance is rare in North Carolina, and I’m not familiar with any other cities which have such language in their local codes.”  

Has Asheville had a successful ballot initiative?

Not yet. The closest that an initiative has gotten to making it on an Asheville ballot was in 2020 when the Climate Bill of Rights, a proposal by the Asheville-based nonprofit Community Roots, fell just 27 signatures short of reaching its goal of 10,358. The proposed ordinance would have established that Asheville residents “have a right to a healthy climate, and that right is violated by the extraction, production, waste disposal, distribution, sale and contracting related to fossil fuels.” 

Despite that failure, Community Roots co-founder Kat Houghton still believes the ballot initiative process is one of Asheville’s most straightforward ways to participate in local government. 

“[Ballot initiatives are] the only mechanism that we have that allows us to actually write our own laws,” she says. “It’s really direct democracy. It’s a way for us to actually be part of how things are run.”

Who’s attempting initiatives this year?

Community Roots is again collecting signatures to push the Climate Bill of Rights onto Asheville’s 2022 ballot. So far, the initiative has roughly 3,000 signatures, says Houghton. After learning from 2020’s mistakes, she says her organization is confident it will meet the goal this year. 

Another citizen-led ballot initiative, Restore Asheville Police, aims to improve morale within and provide additional funding for the Asheville Police Department. A nonprofit of the same name is leading the process of gathering signatures ahead of this year’s election. 

Restore Asheville Police representative Ross Smith declined to be interviewed. But the campaign’s website states that “in 10 months, Asheville will be on a common-sense path to restore the Asheville PD staffing and reduce crime. … This is accomplished by citizens voting to adopt a new city ordinance and forcing the city administration to act.”


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