November Surprise: city and precinct level ballot referenda voters don’t know about

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Illinois only has one statewide referendum on the ballot: the Transportation Lockbox Amendment, which has generated a fair amount of conversation around budgets, infrastructure, and downstate vs. city issues.

But voters in Chicago may be surprised to see three additional citywide referenda. Three non-binding, advisory questions have been kicked to the November 8 ballot by the City Council and the Mayor. Passing any one of these wouldn’t trigger any policy changes (advisory referenda are more like opinion polls, stuck at the bottom off the ballot). Still, voters will have the chance to weigh in on stricter firearm penalties and background checks, making infrastructure projects a priority, and a succinctly worded, fundamental question on school funding: should the State of Illinois provide full and equitable funding for the Chicago Public Schools?

Important questions all around. But there’s also a story of what’s not on the ballot. As the Chicago Tribune reported, aldermen in the Mayor’s corner crowded the ballot with these three broad referenda, leaving off a more targeted policy proposal, backed by Alderman Scott Waguespack, Alderman Roderick Sawyer, and the SEIU Local 1 — should authority over Chicago’s two major airports be shifted from the Mayor’s office to an independent authority?

Chicago has a three-question limit per election. And as Sawyer told the Tribune, these three fall in a long line of City Hall politicking: “If you don’t want something that people really want to discuss, you put this fluff referenda up and fill the ballot with that, and we don’t get real legitimate questions answered.”

In certain wards, and even down to the precinct level, voters may encounter advisory and binding referenda on neighborhood-level issues. The 26th Precinct of the 17th Ward (in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the Southwest Side) is voting on continuing a retail ban on alcohol. A patchwork of wards and precincts on the West Side have put mental health services on the ballot. As both Illinois and Chicago have seen deep cuts in services and public funding for mental health, the community-led Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers gathered over 9,000 signatures to create the Westside Expanded Mental Health Services Program.

That program is now on the ballot in the form of a binding referendum. Voters in certain wards and precincts in North Lawndale, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, and the Near West Side can approve a small property tax (amounting to around $16 per year, for most) to establish a community mental health center.