Straw bans, in the short time in which they've been a live issue, have usually been the product of some city council or local regulatory body. Both Santa Barbara and San Francisco relied on their city governments to pass their plastic prohibitions. Seattle's was technically imposed by the city's public utility agency.
Only in Chicago is direct democracy being brought to bear on this most crucial issue, albeit for completely cynical reasons.
Come next Tuesday, voters in the Windy City will be asked, "Should the city of Chicago ban the use of plastic straws within the corporate limits?" This ballot question is nonbinding, and an actual city ordinance would still need to be passed to bring any ban into effect.
That being said, Tuesday's straw poll is still significant for two reasons, only one of which has to do with straws.
The first, straw-related reason is that there already is a bill floating around the Chicago city council that would ban straws from being served at food service businesses located on city-owned or -operated property. The sponsors of that ordinance, Aldermen Edward Burke and Raymond Lopez, have been holding off on pushing the legislation forward until voters have a chance to weigh in. A resounding no vote, binding or not, could deter politicians from moving forward with the straw ban.
The second reason has much more to do with personal political rivalries and the peculiarities of Illinois election law than with cracking down on plastic pollution.
Earlier this summer, it looked like former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn would get enough signatures to place a ballot initiative limiting the Chicago mayor to three terms. That would have prevented current Chicago mayor—and Quinn rival—Rahm Emmanuel from running for a third term in February 2019.
To stop Quinn foiling Emmanuel's reelection chances, the Chicago City Council voted in June to stack the city ballot with three essentially meaningless advisory questions, including not just whether the city should ban straws, but also whether longtime Chicago homeowners with incomes under $100,000 should get a property tax exemption and whether taxes from marijuana, should it be legalized, be used to fund public schools and mental health services.
Because state election law forbids more than three such questions appearing on a city ballot, Quinn's binding referendum got the boot.
Then, in September, Emmanuel made the surprise decision not to run, taking some of the steam out of this highly personalized dispute. Quinn managed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, and he is currently locked in a court battle over whether the three-question limit is constitutional.
The upshot is that straw bans, once the sole province of elected or appointed do-gooders, will now be put the popular test, giving voters a chance to reject both greasy machine politics and nanny-statism with a single vote.