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Casino opponents in Pope County fail to submit enough signatures for extension; measure would have removed area as site

by Michael R. Wickline | August 8, 2022 at 2:26 p.m.
A roulette wheel spins in 2018 at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

The committee promoting a proposed constitutional amendment that would ax Pope County as a state-licensed casino site failed to submit enough signatures of registered voters to qualify for 30 more days to collect more signatures to get on the ballot, Secretary of State John Thurston said Monday.

Thurston said the Fair Play for Arkansas committee needed to submit 66,864 valid signatures of registered voters in order to qualify for the 30-day cure period, and his office verified no less than 62,859 registered voters.

The required number of valid signatures for sponsors to qualify their proposed constitutional amendment for the ballot is 89,151, Thurston said in a letter dated Monday to James Knight of the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee.

Fair Play will review the information from the Secretary of State to make a determination regarding any further efforts toward the November ballot, Fair Play spokesman Hans Stiritz said.

“We’re grateful for the diligent efforts of our canvassing team in spite of extreme opposition from the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, including possible criminal activity currently under investigation," he said.

The secretary of state's certification that the sponsor has submitted the required number of valid signatures of registered voters on petitions is one of two requirements to qualify a proposed ballot measure for the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

The other requirement is that the state Board of Election Commissioners must certify a proposed ballot measure's popular name and ballot title under state law. Act 376 of 2019 shifted the responsibility for certifying a proposed ballot measure's popular name and ballot title from the attorney general to the state Board of Election Commissioners.

The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners last Wednesday declined to certify the ballot title for a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at removing Pope County as a state-licensed casino site.

In declining to certify the ballot title, some commissioners said it lacked a reference to the existing license held by Cherokee Nation Businesses for the casino site. Last week, a spokesman for the Fair Play Arkansas 2022 committee that proposed the constitutional amendment said the group was disappointed with the board's decision and will review its options.

About a month ago, the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee said it turned in 103,096 signatures in its attempt to qualify its proposed measure for the ballot.

Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution — approved by voters in November 2018 — authorizes the state Racing Commission to issue four casino licenses.

The licenses are authorized for expanding gambling operations at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs and Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, and for casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties with the endorsement of local officials.

Casinos are currently operating in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and West Memphis.

In November, the Pope County casino license was handed to Cherokee Nation Businesses to build Legends Resort & Casino after the Arkansas Racing Commission ruled to nullify the license previously awarded to Gulfside Casino Partnership. The Pope County casino license has long been a source of turmoil for the county and the state, resulting in numerous court cases.

David Couch, attorney for the Cherokee Nation Businesses and the Arkansas Tourism Alliance that opposes Fair Play's ballot proposal, said Monday in a written statement that "for the first time in Arkansas history, voters were well-informed on the ballot initiative and its effects prior to being approached by canvassers.

"Our grassroots and digital voter education efforts led many to decline to sign Fair Play's petition, ultimately resulting in its failure to get the measure on the ballot," he said.

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