The key sticking point in negotiations to repeal House Bill 2 is a provision in the proposed compromise bill that would allow for a referendum vote on local nondiscrimination ordinances.
Supporters say the option to petition for a ballot referendum on a controversial ordinance would prevent overreach by city councils – and that the provision is necessary to garner enough Republican votes for repeal. Gov. Roy Cooper said Sunday that it “would be like putting the Civil Rights Act to a popular vote in cities in the South during the 1960s.”
But a referendum option has been part of the city charters for Raleigh, Greensboro and Asheville for decades, Republican leaders point out.
Raleigh’s referendum system is similar to what’s proposed in House Bill 186, the HB2 repeal compromise sponsored by Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville.
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The city’s charter allows residents who oppose a new ordinance approved by the city council to petition for a voter referendum to strike down the ordinance. To succeed, the petition must include signatures from 10 percent of all registered voters in the city at the time of the last election – or about 30,000 signatures.
The high number of signatures required has meant that a referendum is rare. But the referendum process outlined in the HB2 repeal compromise could prove easier for opponents of a nondiscrimination ordinance: It requires petitions with 10 percent of the number of voters who participated in the most recent municipal election.
Municipal elections generally have low turnout, and about 36,000 voters cast ballots in the 2015 Raleigh City Council election. So under the HB 186 provision, roughly 3,600 signatures would be needed to force a referendum on a nondiscrimination ordinance in Raleigh.
Greensboro and Asheville’s referendum systems also have larger signature requirements than the provision in HB 186. In Greensboro, 25 percent of the number of voters in the most recent municipal election must sign a petition to force a referendum. In Asheville, the required number is 15 percent of all registered voters.
“There’s already referendum capabilities in place in some of our major cities,” said Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, who wants to see HB2 repealed. “Let’s find a way to move this forward, and let’s not let this become an obstacle. ... My personal feeling is that we need our legislature and our governor to work together to bring this to an end.”
Baldwin points out that Raleigh’s referendum system is “seldom” used by residents, in part because city council members try to address concerns before they take action.
“We have a very robust citizen engagement process on everything,” she said. “When you are at the local level, emails and phone calls from people make a difference.”
One of Raleigh’s most recent petition-driven referendums was in 1991, when 15,000 people signed a petition to stop the extension of Western Boulevard toward downtown Raleigh. About 52 percent of voters in the referendum favored the road construction – and the road is now one of the busiest commuter routes into downtown.
Wake County Commissioner Greg Ford, a Democrat who opposes the current compromise, suggested that striking down a nondiscrimination ordinance could be an unprecedented use of the referendum system.
On Twitter, he questioned whether there are any examples “where these referenda were used to justify a majority’s denial of minority citizens’ civil rights?”