Vice Squad
Thursday, November 04, 2004
 
Prohibition-Era Chicago


And no, I don't mean the 1920s. Nor am I referring to the currently illegal drugs, as that would be more accurately phrased as "Prohibition-Era Globe". What I am referring to is the system in Chicago where an electoral precinct can vote itself dry -- or even vote dry a specific address -- thereby banning legal alcohol sales. On Tuesday, fourteen precincts faced a decision on whether to go dry or not -- and all fourteen voted to do so. Four more ballots looking for bans on alcohol sales at specific addresses also passed. For instance, Ward 11, Precinct 35 faced this question: "Shall the sale at retail of alcoholic liquor be prohibited at the following address: 4220 South Halsted Street, Chicago, Illinois?" Voters decided to cut off the alcohol sales at that address by a 178-88 vote.

These sorts of ballots almost always win, unless they happen to be threatening a restaurant with a particularly loyal neighborhood following. But places that are frequented primarily by out-of-precinct patrons don't stand much of a chance.

I understand the frustration that people can have with some local liquor store that is a persistent hotbed of public nuisance. But nevertheless, I am not a fan of these precinct-level or address-specific votes. Consumers of alcohol have to be permitted to make their purchases somewhere, but to each individual precinct, it might look like somewhere else is the best option. So a creeping prohibition is quite possible -- though currently unlikely to spread too far, in the case of alcohol in Chicago. Some of these dry precincts will lose their only late-night convenience store, for instance, and such outcomes will take some of the luster off of precinct-wide prohibitions.

The Dry Chicago story provides a warning about direct democracy, no? Can you imagine what would happen if constitutional rights were routinely submitted to a vote? I suspect that running a blog would be prohibited in my precinct.

Voting results on the dry referenda can be found here (scroll to near the bottom, or search on "local option").

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