I get to vote, you don’t

I have to go to bed, so this will be quick. But this is such a perfect example of geographic bias in “public input” that I can’t let it go unremarked upon:

LAKEVIEW — Voters in the 44th Ward said “no” on Tuesday to the CTA’s proposed Belmont Bypass project.

The $320 million project would add another track to the Belmont “L” station, which connects Red, Brown and Purple lines and require the city to buy 16 buildings, partial air rights and several parking lots — a move some locals say could devastate the surrounding area.


The question only appeared in those precincts closest to the Belmont “L” station: 20, 36 and 38. Local activists said the limited scope was due to time constraints.

What that means – as the article’s author, to her credit, points out – is that the 1,900 voters who would be most negatively affected by the Belmont Bypass got an officially-sanctioned megaphone for their views, while virtually all of the 200,000 people who ride the Red, Brown, and Purple Lines, and who would most directly benefit from this project, did not.

The offending bypass. Credit: Curbed Chicago
The offending bypass. Credit: Curbed Chicago

Several caveats: 1. I do not actually have a strongly held opinion about whether the Belmont Bypass is actually a good idea; 2. Certainly the people who own, reside, or run businesses in one of the 16 buildings to be taken and demolished have more at stake than everyone else, and I don’t want to minimize that; 3. This is a nonbinding resolution, and so doesn’t actually directly cause any action to be taken or not taken.

That said. That said, this is a shining example of the way that the procedures of local democracy often disenfranchise many of the people – frequently, the vast majority – who are affected by a given decision. Though the referendum is nonbinding, it certainly sends a message to the local alderman about what his constituents – that is, the people on whom his employment depends – want him to do; and, in the world of Chicago politics, local alderman have an awful lot of power to influence what happens in their ward. (That’s a separate discussion, though the fact that these sorts of decisions are made by such hyper-local officials is just another way in which the vast majority of those 200,000 daily riders lack recourse: their aldermen don’t have any say in the situation.)

I can imagine an objection. Daniel, says the objector, the reason these 1,900 people got to vote on this referendum – the reason they have a megaphone – is that they organized and collected petitions to get the question on their ballots. Had those other people organized, they would also have had a megaphone.

True. But two points:

1. The sorts of resources and skills required to collect signatures for a ballot referendum – knowledge of some of the more arcane election laws, probably access to at least one lawyer, language skills, enough free time to actually walk around with a pen and clipboard, and so on – are not equally distributed across the population. They are not equally distributed between, say, Lakeview and Washington Park. Setting some threshold for proving that a given issue is important enough to put on the ballot seems reasonable enough; requiring each and every precinct to do so separately – or forgo the chance to take a public stance on an issue that other people get to vote on – does not.

2. Even if the aforementioned resources and skills were equally distributed, this sort of public input – where, as with most public meetings, a sizable investment of time and effort is required just to have the chance to register your feelings – privileges small minorities with strongly-held opinions over large majorities with weaker opinions. In most cases, that means projects are shot down, whether it’s a piece of transit infrastructure that will speed the commutes of 200,000 people at the expense of 1,000, or new housing that will improve the accessibility of a desirable neighborhood at the inconvenience of its nearby neighbors. That’s not to say that these projects are always worth it, or even that every person’s opinion should be considered equally: clearly it’s a bigger deal to lose your home, even if you’re compensated for it, than it is to save five minutes on your commute each way.

But at the moment, we have a system of public input that, all too often, pretends the members of the vocal minority are the only people with a stake in the decision. And that seems to me like something less than democracy.


5 thoughts on “I get to vote, you don’t

  1. In the same vein: referendum to recommend the Federal Aviation Administration to “revisit the criteria it uses to create `noise contours’ that determine which residences near airports across the country are eligible for noise mitigation.’’


    People who live by the airports regret it now that they changed the flight paths to prevent delays to people on the planes.

    1. Just to be clear, delays haven’t been reduced (they have changed from delays in landing to delays in taxing to the gate), while the amount of people impacted here is huge. If you are sensitive to noisy airplanes flying over your house every 30 seconds, anywhere from Irving Park to Devon west of Pulaski (at minimum) are off-limits, where as before, at least some of the loudest air traffic flew over industrial land use, cosntructed due to the negative externalities of a major airport. Considering this is smack-dab in the middle of the regions job corridor, it’s really questionable how beneficial it is to the region even if it did lower delays slightly, allowing more people to have brief layovers at O’Hare.

      So in effect, the O’Hare “Modernization” Plan is a case study in how you negatively impact the highest amount of people while positively impacting no one (except the contractors milking the $10 billion dollar waste).

      Little different than what is being discussed w/the red line flyover


  2. I know this is likely an unpopular opinion, but its things like these that make me happy that Rahm is mayor. He has the gall to get shit done and, when needed, push through decisions. In the case of the (mostly necessary) school closings, that quality was not so great, but with the bypass, it could be just what we need, except for the very few people living in the immediate area. I’m also thrilled to have a mayor who cares about public transit for the first time in decades. Government is about making the most people happy. The extra capacity on Red Purple and Brown would do that.

    1. Yeah, I think this is a dangerous road to go down. Alon Levy had a good post a while back about the tendency of people of all political backgrounds to be tempted by anti-democratic processes, and the serious risks that entails. I think he generally had it right.

  3. I agree with your assessment if I look at the logic in a vacuum, but I think most politicians have the faculties to recognize the difference between normal cases of development like “the usual group of complainers”, or “I expected about half the people to hate this, because that’s how it normally goes” vs “Man, this crap is gonna cost me my seat”.

    That said, the only nudge I could think of that would affect the political calculus would be to reduce the number of aldermanic seats so they have to take on a bigger city view. or possibly go to a more parlimentary style of election where you get a slate of candidates (giving power to the party, as they would normally elect the slate).

    Finally, one might argue that the better system is one that limits potentially good changes at the cost of certain pain, because, in the end the benefits are still uncertain, and they should be of a such a large magnitude that one can justify action to an apathetic majority. If even you’re on the border, then factoring in the pretty large likely price tag may make it a legitmately iffy idea.

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