What the Gov: A Chicago Voter’s Last-Minute Guide to Ballot Measures

Straws, weed, property taxes and more. Here’s what Chicago voters should know about the referendum questions that will appear on their ballots.

This article is part of a series called What the Gov, where BGA Engagement Editor Mia Sato takes reader questions related to Illinois government and upcoming elections and tracks down the answers. Ask your own question here.

On the ballot you’ll receive on or before Tuesday, you’ll encounter the names of politicians you’ve likely heard from over and over again the last few months. But a few questions at the bottom of ballots might come as a surprise to some voters.

Chelsea Sprayregen of East Humboldt Park was tripped up by the referendum questions — also called ballot measures or initiatives — that appeared on her ballot when she voted absentee.

A handful of readers also sent in questions about the ballot measures: What do they mean? How did they get on the ballot? And what are implications when I vote for or against one?

Chicago voters will weigh in on five citywide ballot measures and three Cook County-wide measures, none of which will automatically trigger immediate action by local officials.

Consider this a way to cram before Nov. 6.

What Chicago voters will weigh in on

Banning plastic straws

Exact wording: Should the City of Chicago ban the use of plastic straws within the corporate city limits?

Sponsored by: Ald. Edward Burke, 14th

Context: If you’ve been paying attention to the national environmental conversation, you probably witnessed the uproar earlier this year over single-use plastic straws and the ensuing movement to ban or phase them out. Even your neighborhood bar may not use them anymore.

Though decreasing plastic waste is a worthy environmental cause, there’s debate over whether plastic straws are the best type of waste to target. And people with disabilities are calling on straw bans to be more thoughtful because some need straws to consume beverages.

Property tax exemption

Exact wording: Should the City of Chicago seek that the State of Illinois create a homeowners property tax exemption for families in municipalities of over 500,000 that have lived in their home for over 10 years and whose income is under $100,000?

Sponsored by: Ald. Danny Solis, 25th

Context: This question touches on something many voters likely already feel: Chicago residents want property tax relief. But a Longtime Occupant Homeowner Exemption already exists in Cook County — most just don’t qualify for it based on how it is written in state law. The Chicago chapter of the League of Women Voters, which provides information on referenda and offers its own positions, took no position on this measure. But the group’s vice president, Karen Sandrick, who also chairs the committee responsible for making recommendations on the League’s position, said the committee felt using a referendum to correct the existing exemption was confusing and a “loosey-goosey” way to go about it.

Pot for school funding

Exact wording: In the event marijuana is legalized, should the City of Chicago appropriate revenue from the sale of marijuana to increase funding for Chicago Public Schools and for mental health services?

Sponsored by: Ald. Howard Brookins, Jr., 21st, and Ald. Joseph Moore, 49th

Context: Back in March, Cook County primary voters weighed in on a referendum question about the legalization of pot for adults 21 years and older. Sixty-eight percent of voters supported the proposal, which, like this new question for Chicago voters, was solely advisory.

*Mayoral term limits

Exact wording: Shall Chicago adopt the following term limit for the office of Mayor effective for the mayoral election in 2019 and thereafter: No person may hold the office of Mayor for more than two consecutive elected 4-year terms (with all prior consecutive elected terms of the current officeholder counted in determining the term limit for that officeholder)?

Context: Perhaps the most contentious referendum this cycle, the question was brought forward via a petition by former Gov. Pat Quinn.

It’s unique in a few ways: It was originally intended to be binding but the issue has been clouded by the courts. Voters will see this referendum on their ballot but a lower court ruled it was ineligible. That’s being challenged and is pending — if the ruling stands, the Chicago Board of Elections will not report the results of the referendum.

*Consumer advocate

Exact wording: Shall Chicago establish an elected Consumer Advocate for taxpayers and consumers to replace the appointed Commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection?

Context: This question was also part of Quinn’s petition, and like the mayoral term limits question it is on appeal. If the ruling stands, the Chicago Board of Elections will not report the results of the referendum.

What Cook County voters will weigh in on

Minimum wage
Exact wording: Shall the minimum wage in your municipality match the $13 per hour Cook County minimum wage law for adults over the age of 18 by July 1, 2020, and be indexed to the consumer price index after that?

Sponsors: Larry Suffredin, Luis Arroyo, Jr., Richard R. Boykin, Jerry Butler, John P. Daley, Dennis Deer, Bridget Gainer, Jesús G. García, Edward M. Moody, Stanley Moore, Deborah Sims, Jeffrey R. Tobolski

Context: Some Chicagoans saw a similar measure in 2014. After an advisory referendum question on raising the minimum wage appeared on ballots in 103 precincts in the 2014 primary, the city passed an ordinance raising the minimum wage for Chicago workers to $13 by 2019.

This time around, voters in the suburbs that previously opted out of a countywide ordinance raising the minimum wage will get a chance to chime in on the issue.

Paid sick leave

Exact wording: Shall your municipality match the Cook County earned sick time law which allows for workers to earn up to 40 hours (5 days) of sick time a year to take care of their own health or a family member’s health?

Sponsors: Larry Suffredin, Luis Arroyo, Jr., Richard R. Boykin, Jerry Butler, John P. Daley, Dennis Deer, Bridget Gainer, Jesús G. García, Edward M. Moody, Stanley Moore, Deborah Sims, Jeffrey R. Tobolski

Context: This measure is also already in effect in Chicago. The city passed an ordinance in 2017 requiring employers to give workers the right to earn and use up to five sick days.

Firearms trafficking

Exact wording: Should the State of Illinois strengthen penalties for the illegal trafficking of firearms and require all gun dealers to be certified by the State?

Sponsors: Larry Suffredin, Luis Arroyo, Jr., Richard R. Boykin, Jerry Butler, John P. Daley, Dennis Deer, Bridget Gainer, Jesús G. García, Edward M. Moody, Stanley Moore, Deborah Sims, Jeffrey R. Tobolski

Context: Like the other two countywide measures, this question was approved and placed on ballots by a majority vote of the Cook County Board. Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston and a sponsor of the firearms referendum, told the Chicago Tribune he hopes the voter response to the question will encourage Gov. Bruce Rauner to approve legislation tightening rules for gun dealers in the state.

But just so you know...

Though you’ll vote with a yes or no response, be aware that other than the two pending referenda brought forward by Quinn, all Chicago and Cook County-wide questions this election cycle are advisory, meaning they are not binding and no immediate action will be taken based on voting results. Think of the questions as a way for government to poll voters to get a sense of where the public stands on an issue.

But that’s not to say your vote on referendum questions is meaningless.

“These are issues that are bubbling up to the surface,” Sandrick said. “I think people should start thinking about these things.”

A BGA Policy team analysis from 2016 showed that while city leaders often didn’t have actual implementation authority, there are cases where the public’s input lead to change. Just don’t expect the results of referendum questions to guarantee anything.

How referenda get to you

Referenda can exist for various levels of government, from statewide (of which there are none this cycle), all the way down to wards and precincts (of which there are many).

In Chicago, the featured citywide referenda are voted on and approved by City Council, a process that some say is politicized by the sitting mayor and allies. In a practice that’s sometimes called “crowding the ballot,” the accusation is that those in power fill up the three referendum spots with uncontroversial questions in order to keep off potentially unflattering or embarrassing measures. Some say that happened this cycle with Quinn’s question about mayoral term limits.

Chicago voters will see the three approved citywide referenda, plus the two pending measures from Quinn. They’ll also see three Cook County referenda questions, and depending on where in the city they live, they may also see other questions addressing topics like rent control, lead in water or other community issues. This article only addresses the questions all Chicago voters will encounter. Search for other referenda across the state here.

About the Author

Mia Sato

Mia Sato joined the Better Government Association in September 2017 as engagement editor. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication with an emphasis in reporting and a double major in political science.