Appeal filed over Arkansas casino measure

State justices asked to order count of signatures on petitions

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

A group seeking to expand casino gambling in more than a dozen Arkansas counties filed an appeal Friday of Secretary of State John Thurston's decision to block the proposed constitutional amendment from appearing on the November ballot.

The appeal asks the Arkansas Supreme Court to force Thurston into counting the nearly 100,000 signatures that Arkansas Wins In 2020 collected on behalf of the proposal.

Thurston's office rejected those signatures earlier this month, after determining that the group had erred in certifying that its signature-gatherers had passed the required background checks. Thurston cited similar problems with background checks in his decision to block three other groups that had petitioned for other issues to appear on the ballot.

If the court cannot reach a decision on the issue of the background checks by Aug. 20 -- the deadline for certifying ballot questions for the Nov. 3 general election -- Arkansas Wins' lawsuit asks the justices to order the inclusion of the casino-expansion question on the ballot.

[RELATED » Full coverage of elections in Arkansas »]

Taylor Riddle, a spokesman for Arkansas Wins, said in a statement Friday that the group is prepared to show evidence to the court that all of its paid canvassers passed the required Arkansas State Police background checks before gathering any signatures.

"We have attempted numerous times to work with the secretary of state's office on rectifying their concerns which we believe are invalid," Riddle said. "Unfortunately, the secretary of state's office has made it clear in their correspondence that they are attempting to let the clock run out on getting the nearly 100,000 signatures of voters certified. It is disheartening that the will of these voters is being blatantly diminished by an office that is supposed to advocate for voting Arkansans."

In his own statement issued late Friday, Thurston defended his office's review of hundreds of thousands of signatures collected on behalf of various ballot question committees.

That process has come under criticism in recent weeks from the groups that had their certifications denied by Thurston's office.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of casinos in Arkansas at]

"As Secretary of State and Chief Election Officer, it is my duty to follow the statutes and laws passed by the Arkansas State Legislature," Thurston said. "I have taken a sworn oath to uphold the law and constitution and my office will continue to follow the law as written."

The lawsuit filed Friday afternoon asked the justices to give expedited review of the case because of the approaching deadlines for the election.

Arkansas Wins submitted petitions with 97,039 signatures on behalf of its casino-expansion proposal to Thurston's office on July 6.

The group's proposal would authorize as many as 16 additional casino licenses in the state, and comes just two years after Arkansans voted to allow the state's first four full-fledged casinos to open.

Under Arkansas Wins' proposal, at least one new casino would be allowed to open in each of the following counties: Benton, Boone, Chicot, Garland, Greene, Jefferson, Johnson, Miller, Nevada, Sebastian, St. Francis and Washington. Crittenden and Pulaski counties would each be eligible for two casinos.

Arkansas Wins' efforts are being financed by RCJ Global Properties, a company that lists the same address as Champions World Resort in Kissimmee, Fla.

The state's current casino operators -- Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, Delaware North and the Saracen Development Authority -- have each contributed money opposing the effort.

In a related action on Friday, the state Supreme Court agreed to expedite its consideration of an appeal by two other groups that saw their ballot petitions blocked by Thurston. Those groups are seeking to add a pair of questions to the November ballot that would ask voters to approve a new nonpartisan legislative and congressional redistricting commission and a move to open primary elections with ranked-choice selection of candidates.

In a per curiam opinion handed down late in the afternoon, the high court appointed Judge John Fogleman to serve as a special master to resolve factual disputes raised in the lawsuit. The court also agreed to allow a third group that opposes both ballot proposals to intervene in the lawsuit.