Much has been written in recent years on the use of citywide advisory referenda and attempts to crowd out specific ballot questions in Chicago.

The three questions eligible to appear on the ballots of Chicago voters citywide have been the subject of controversy, and have had mixed results in terms of implemented public policy.

A BGA look at different types of advisory ballot questions over the last ten years showed some interesting trends in the use of this tool: in particular, a high frequency of hyper-local advisory referenda, presented at the ward and precinct level, often addressing local issues of significant consequence to specific communities.  

In addition to the provisions governing citywide referenda, state statute permits “any political subdivision or district or precinct or combination of precincts” to submit up to three public questions to voters in a given election. Within Chicago city limits, the statute applies to wards, individual precincts, or multiple contiguous precincts. These questions may be placed on the ballot by a majority vote of the members of a municipality’s city council not less than 79 days before a given election, or they may be submitted by filing a public petition no later than 92 days before said election. The public petition must be signed by a number of registered voters who are residents of the ward, precinct or precincts that is equal to at least 8% of that region’s total votes for governor in the last gubernatorial election. In some precincts, this figure could be as low as 5 signatures.

In the last ten years, ward and precinct-level advisory questions have appeared on Chicagoans’ ballots over 200 times, according to State Board of Elections data.[1] These hyper-local referenda have been used with varying results in recent years.

For example, after being kept from the citywide ballot in multiple elections, supporters of an elected Chicago Public School Board of Education solicited public input by placing the same question on the ballot in wards and precincts across the city, effectively soliciting a broad demonstration of support despite being blocked from the formal citywide spot.

More often, local advisory referenda solicit input from just one or a handful of wards or precincts. Questions range from issues of broad national public policy – voters in Ward 43, Precinct 58 were asked in 2004 to weigh in on whether the Patriot Act should be repealed – to questions on the specific placement of tow zone and no-parking signs.

In some cases, questions are posed in a number of adjacent precincts in an attempt to solicit community input on issues impacting neighborhoods that don’t correspond directly with a single political subdivision.

As in the case of many citywide referenda, local advisory referenda have been used to bolster community efforts for or against certain local issues. We took a closer look at three specific hyper-local advisory referenda proposed in recent years: 

1. Ames Middle School Conversion, 2014: 

 In December of 2013, the Chicago Board of Education voted to approve plans to convert Ames Middle School in Logan Square into a selective enrollment military academy. The move was supported by local 26th Ward Alderman Roberto Maldonado and, ultimately, Mayor Emanuel, but many parents of Ames students, as well as the school’s Local School Council and some community groups, rallied hard against the conversion.

In an effort to demonstrate strong community opposition to the plan, parents and supporters were able to get the following question on the ballot in eight precincts around the school in March of 2014:

 “Should Ames Middle School (1920 N. Hamlin Avenue) be maintained as a neighborhood school, rather than being converted into a military high school?”

69% of voters in the eight precincts voted yes. Community activists praised the results, presenting them to the Board Education in last-ditch efforts to halt the proposed shift.

Nonetheless, the Board of Ed carried out its planned conversion; the Marine Leadership Academy at Ames Middle School opened in the fall of 2014, despite community backlash and the results of the referenda.

2. Lincoln Park Hospital, 2011: 

 A 2011 ballot proposal in Lincoln Park proved was more geographically narrow, but ultimately more consequential. 

After abruptly closing in the fall of 2008, Lincoln Park Hospital in the 43rd Ward sat vacant for several years. Former local alderman Vi Daley postponed development for over a year, citing community opposition to large retail development. Nevertheless, shortly before leaving office, she indicated that she would support a proposed redevelopment plan.

In response, three questions were placed on the ballot in the 31st precinct of the 43rd ward in February of 2011. These questions were crafted in response to community concerns about the size of redevelopment, the scale of new retail establishments in an otherwise residential area, and the intrusiveness of related retail needs, like large truck loading zones. The questions included: 

  • Should the Lincoln Park Hospital site be redeveloped to include significant amounts of retail, office and other commercial space?
  • Should the Lincoln Park Hospital site be redeveloped to have truck loading docks that are accessed from Webster Avenue and/or Lincoln Avenue?
  • Should the Lincoln Park Hospital site be redeveloped to include truck loading docks that do not have both (i) and off-street truck turnaround and (ii) an off-street truck waiting area adjacent to the docks?

All three questions failed, with over 70% voting against the second and third questions.

While these strong majorities translated to only 177-227 actual votes, it demonstrated a level of discontent with the plans – discontent that reached a fever pitch when community groups and a former alderman filed a lawsuit to block development.

Current 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith, then running for her first term in office, made renegotiation of the Lincoln Park Hospital development agreement one of her first focuses after taking office office. A revised plan reduced the concentration of commercial space and avoided the truck loading zones, points of contention addressed in the ballot initiatives.

 3. Petcoke, 2015:

Most recently, far south-side communities utilized the local referendum tool to further a years-long environmental battle in their neighborhood.

For years, residents of the far southeast side of Chicago had been raising an alarm about a nasty neighborhood pollutant: petcoke, a petroleum byproduct stored in uncovered piles along the Calumet River. The dangerous dust would blow into neighboring residential areas and so incensed neighbors that it became a key campaign issue in the 2015 10th ward aldermanic race.

The Chicago City Council, at the urging of the Mayor, passed a law in 2014 that banned new companies from storing petcoke in city limits and required existing petcoke to be stored indoors, but residents still pushed for an outright ban on the product. One of former Alderman John Pope’s opponents in the 2015 aldermanic race led the charge to get the following question on the ballot in the 10th ward: 

“Shall the storing, handling, and transporting of petroleum coke be banned in the 10th Ward?”

A powerful majority, 86% of local residents answered “yes.” 

While the product has yet to be outright prohibited, progress has been made. Later that month, the city’s last major petcoke storage company, KCBX – a Koch Industries subsidiary – announced that it would no longer be storing petcoke at one of its two facilities on the south side. Four months later, the city issued an administrative order formalizing this decision.

Former Ald. Pope, meanwhile, was narrowly defeated in April’s 2015 runoff elections.


Myriad factors contribute to and complicate outcomes of actions taken in the wake of local advisory questions. In just the three cases discussed above, combinations of aldermanic and mayoral support, pressure from lawsuits and impending elections, perhaps even the relative clout – political and monetary – of constituents, all factor in to some degree. As in the case of citywide referenda, community support or opposition to a specific issue as demonstrated through hyper local referenda, doesn’t always spur related policy change.

However, there’s no doubt that these questions contribute to the conversation. Activists, advocates and politicians alike cite their results in support of or opposition to major issues. The campaigns around ballot questions educate constituents on issues of immediate local impact.

So are advisory questions much ado about nothing? We’d say it’s always worth a closer look.

Danish Murtaza contributed to this post.

[1] This figure does not include “local option referenda” filed pursuant to the Illinois Liquor Control Act of 1934. These precinct-level questions regularly appear on ballots, and their results are binding.