Referendum by Petition: Adding a Way to Make Annexation Decisions More Inclusive
The addition of a formal petition process patterned on Tennessee’s referendum process so that it is the equivalent of a vote could allow non-resident landowners to participate in annexation decisions with less trouble and at less expense without diminishing the ability of annexation opponents to affect the outcome. A petition process structured in this way, as a decisive vote if it fails but as a request for action by the city if it passes, would not be entirely novel. A few states authorize petitions that decide annexation questions, though in a more cumbersome manner than suggested here, by allowing opponents to block annexations in a petition process that occurs after the city has decided the issue.
A formal petition process to stand in the place of a referendum election could be structured in a number of ways. One proposal is to offer two petitions—one for those who favor annexation and one for those who oppose it. A simpler option would be a single ballot that could be marked yes or no. All of the usual safeguards for voting could be provided, including anonymity, which could be protected by offering individual ballots instead of petitions with multiple signatures. If non-residents were authorized to participate, eligibility could be determined based on voter registration rolls and property tax records. Businesses, including corporations, could be allowed to participate in the petition process without changing the election law that restricts the right to vote to natural persons but would need a process for declaring who would cast the ballots on their behalf. And unlike the referendum process, which requires only a simple majority to approve annexation, a petition process could be structured to require a higher threshold, affording more protection to those opposed to annexation, if the legislature so chose. The petition process could also be structured to allow both those living or owning land in the area proposed for annexation and those who reside in the city to participate, as is currently authorized for annexation referendums. This dual petition option could be made mandatory, as it has been for the consolidation of local governments, to ensure that all of those affected can participate. As with referendums, either group may, in effect, veto the annexation proposal.