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Arkansas casino fight gets a special master

Access to ballot is being disputed by Michael R. Wickline | August 1, 2020 at 7:36 a.m.
The Arkansas State Supreme Court building is shown in this file photo.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Friday appointed a retired circuit judge as special master to review disputes raised in the Arkansas Wins in 2020 committee's challenge of a state official's ruling that would keep a proposed constitutional amendment allowing more casinos off the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

The committee's proposed amendment would authorize 16 more casinos in Arkansas.

Retired Circuit Judge Kathleen Bell's report to the state Supreme Court is required to be filed by Aug. 17, the high court said Friday in a per curiam order.

The state's high court also directed Secretary of State John Thurston to continue reviewing the petitions submitted by the Arkansas Wins in 2020 Inc. committee and to begin verifying signatures of registered voters on the petitions. The court granted the committee a 30-day "cure" period, which started Friday, to collect more signatures in case they were needed to qualify the proposal for the ballot.

[RELATED » Full coverage of elections in Arkansas »]

"This cure period is provisional, and counting the signatures collected during the cure period depends on whether the petitioner is ultimately determined to be entitled to a cure period," the Supreme Court said.

The court said, "We grant provisional certification of the initiative [for inclusion on the ballot] pending a review of the merits of the certification by the court."

Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Shawn Womack and Rhonda Wood would deny provisional certification. The high court also decided to allow the the Protect Arkansas Communities committee that opposes the proposed amendment to intervene in the case. That committee is financed by the state's three existing casino operators.

On July 6, Todd Wooten, an attorney for the Arkansas Wins committee, signed an affidavit with the secretary of state's office certifying that the committee turned in 97,039 signatures. A proposed amendment needs 89,151 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

But Thurston ruled July 14 that because of an error regarding criminal background checks of canvassers, the petitions they circulated were insufficient and therefore the committee didn't have enough valid signatures to qualify the proposed amendment.

In his letter to Wooten dated July 14, Thurston said the list of paid canvassers soliciting signatures for the casino proposal was accompanied by the following certification: "In accordance with Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-601, please find the Arkansas Wins Paid Canvasser List, along with Federal Background Checks, Arkansas State Background Checks and Paid Canvasser Statements."

Because Arkansas Wins did not comply with Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-601(b)(3) by certifying that its paid canvassers had passed a criminal background check, none of the signatures they solicited may be counted, Thurston said.

"Thus, the petition is insufficient to qualify for the November 3, 2020 general election ballot," Thurston wrote. As with the other proposals, Thurston wrote there may be other reasons why the petitions are insufficient.

But Arkansas Wins said in its filing with the state Supreme Court that when the committee submitted its petitions, it also submitted a statement regarding paid canvassers that states: "A W certifies that the Paid Canvasser passed a criminal background check within thirty (30) days before first gathering signatures."

Thurston notified the committee July 23 that the petitions were insufficient, claiming that after completing the "intake analysis procedure," only 58,675 signatures were on the "face of the petition," which was not enough to "trigger further analysis," the committee said.

But the insufficiency determination failed to adequately set forth the secretary of state's reasons for this finding, contravening Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-111 (d), the ballot committee said.

The Arkansas Wins in 2020 committee said the secretary of state's insufficiency determinations on both July 14 and July 23 were wrong.

On Wednesday, the state Board of Election Commissioners voted 5-1 not to certify the committee's ballot title for the proposed casino amendment. Certifying a ballot proposal's popular name and ballot time are other steps toward getting a proposal on the ballot.

Board member Bilenda Harris-Ritter told her fellow board members that she made her motion based on the length of the ballot title; the names of the limited liability companies that would be granted casino licenses being misleading; the explanation of the tax on casinos being complicated; and "the potential for perpetuity" of the licenses.

But Arkansas Wins said in its filing Thursday with the state Supreme Court that Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-111 (i), which purports to authorize the Board of Election Commissioners to reject a ballot title or popular name, is an unconstitutional delegation of the authority of the secretary of state and the Supreme Court to determine the sufficiency of proposal's ballot title and popular name.

"The Court should declare Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-111 (i) unconstitutional and order the secretary to certify the popular name and ballot title of the Additional Casinos Petition for inclusion on the November 2020 ballot," the committee said.

"In the alternative, the Court should review the Board's determination and declare that the Additional Casinos Petition ballot title and popular name is sufficient and not 'misleading' ... and order the secretary to certify the popular name and ballot title of the Additional Casinos Petition for inclusion on the November 2020 ballot," according to the committee.

The Arkansas Wins in 2020 proposal wouldn't affect the casinos allowed in Amendment 100. It would authorize licenses in the following counties to these companies:

• Benton County, G-First Ark Gaming.

• Boone County, Boone County Gaming.

• Chicot County, Lake Village Gaming Associates.

• Crittenden County, West Memphis 1 Gaming Associates and West Memphis 2 Gaming Associates.

• Garland County, Garland County Gaming Associates.

• Greene County, ASC Transaction Facility.

• Jefferson County, Pine Bluff Gaming Associates.

• Johnson County, Clarksville Gaming Associates.

• Miller County, Texarkana Gaming Associates.

• Nevada County, Prescott Gaming Associates.

• Pulaski County, Little Rock 1 Gaming Associates and Little Rock 2 Gaming Associates.

• Sebastian County, Fort Smith Gaming Associates.

• St. Francis County, Forrest City Gaming.

• Washington County, Fayetteville Gaming Associates.


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