Group drops bid to put casinos on Arkansas ballot

Backers end court challenge to secretary of state’s rejection of some petitions

FILE — A roulette wheel spins at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla.
FILE — A roulette wheel spins at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla.

The committee promoting a proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize 16 more casinos in Arkansas on Friday asked the state Supreme Court to dismiss its challenge of Secretary of State John Thurston's refusal to place its proposal on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

The effect of the request is to end the ballot committee's effort to get the proposal on the ballot.

The casino proposal, if it had been approved by voters, would be in addition to state constitutional Amendment 100, which already authorizes casinos in Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson and Pope counties.

"Arkansas Wins in 2020 has filed a motion for a voluntary nonsuit and will not be taking further legal action," said Taylor Riddle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Wins in 2020 Inc. committee.

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"It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State's office was unwilling to defend the will of the nearly 100,000 Arkansas voters who signed our petition and we believe our argument before the Supreme Court was valid," Riddle said Friday night in a written statement. "We look forward to benefiting the overall wellbeing of Arkansans during these uncertain social and economic times."

This development came a week after the high court appointed a retired circuit judge as special master to review disputes raised in the Arkansas Wins in 2020 committee's challenge of the secretary of state's ruling.

Retired Circuit Judge Kathleen Bell's report to the state Supreme Court is required to be filed by Aug. 17, the high court said last week.

The state's high court also had directed 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 to collect more signatures in case they were needed to qualify the proposal for the ballot.

"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 Protect Arkansas Communities committee, which opposes the Arkansas Wins proposal, 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 this year's ballot.

But Thurston ruled July 14 that because of an error regarding criminal background checks of canvassers, the petitions those canvassers circulated were insufficient under state law and their signatures couldn't be counted. 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.

But Arkansas Wins said in a previous filing with the state Supreme Court that when the committee submitted its petitions, it also submitted a statement regarding paid canvassers that states: "[Arkansas Wins] 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.

Last week, 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.

But Arkansas Wins said in a previous filing 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.