The effort to bring casinos to three counties in Arkansas could be in jeopardy after an official appointed by the southern state’s highest court found that numerous signatures collected in favor of a November ballot initiative were improperly counted as legitimate.
Following a petition drive by the Arkansas Wins In 2016 group that managed to collect over 100,000 signatures, Arkansas voters are to be given the chance on November 8 to cast their ballot on a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution. Should this revision pass, one casino would subsequently be permitted in each of Miller County near the Texas border, Boone County in the Ozark Mountains and Washington County in the northwest of the state.
However, a group calling itself the Committee To Protect Arkansas Values/Stop Casinos Now and two of its members, Chuck Lange of Baxter County and Bill Walmsley from Independence County, filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the collected signatures early last month asking the state to invalidate the results of the coming vote.
In response, the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed John Jennings as a “special master” to look into the anti-casino group’s claims and his subsequent 16-page report has now found that Arkansas Secretary Of State Mark Martin made two mistakes in granting the constitutional amendment referendum.
According to a report from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper, Jennings’ has explained that Martin’s office should not have given the sponsors of the proposed amendment 30 additional days to gather more signatures in July and was also wrong to certify the petition drive as successful two months later.
“We are very pleased with the findings of the “special master”,” said Lange, whose group is reportedly being backed by Delaware North Companies Incorporated, which operates West Memphis’ Southland Park Gaming And Racing. “It is clear that the “special master” has recognized, as have we, that these Missouri guys tried to pull a fast one on Arkansans and got caught. The out-of-state opportunists pushing this amendment hired out-of-state operatives who did not understand or follow Arkansas’ laws to conduct its signature gathering process. We are confident that, as this process plays out, that both the Arkansas Supreme Court and the people of Arkansas will see this amendment for what it is, a scam being perpetrated upon the good people of Arkansas and will reject it.”
The Committee To Protect Arkansas Values/Stop Casinos Now is moreover allegedly being supported by Oaklawn Jockey Club Incorporated, which operates the Oaklawn Racing And Gaming in the city of Hot Springs, and alleged in its lawsuit that the pro-casino sponsors of the amendment had initially submitted 63,725 valid signatures, which was 80 more than was required to obtain a 30-day extension in July as they tried to obtain the 84,859 names needed to get their measure on November’s ballot. But, it contended that 729 of these names had been improperly included in the initial count.
In his findings, Jennings explained that the disputed signatures “should not have been counted for any purpose”, which would have seen the number of names drop to 62,996 and meant that the 30-day extension would not have been granted.
Jennings also agreed with the Committee To Protect Arkansas Values/Stop Casinos Now that the sponsors of the amendment had failed to obtain background checks on 15 paid canvassers with Martin subsequently counting 1,603 signatures these representatives gathered as valid for the initial and ultimate verifications.
“The responsibility of the “special master” is to make findings of fact,” said Robert Coon from Arkansas Wins In 2016. “In this particular case, the “special master” went beyond his authority and made conclusions of law. We disagree with his findings of fact and conclusions of law, which were clearly wrong. The [Arkansas] Supreme Court still has a number of items yet to consider in this case including our motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, which two other ballot committees have filed similar motions with the court. We believe the court will examine the record closely and apply the law fairly and accurately.”
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Martin has declined to comment on the matter while the ultimate decision on what course of action to now take rests with the Arkansas Supreme Court.