Special Master John Jennings, appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court to review sufficiency of signatures on petitions to put a casino amendment on the ballot, has found shortcomings in the signatures.
That finding must be upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court to be final and briefs will be due on the question by the middle of the month, along with arguments on a challenge to the legality of the ballot title. The amendment would give private companies the rights to open casinos in Miller, Boone and Washington counties. The Cherokee Nation, which would operate one of the casinos, has been a major financial backer. Money for opposition comes from the existing casinos in Arkansas at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Park in West Memphis.
The news was first announced by the committee formed to oppose the amendment that would allow three more casinos in Arkansas.
Chuck Lange, Chairman of Protect Arkansas Values and a petitioner in the case, had this to say about the findings, “We are very pleased with the findings of the Special Master. 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,” concluded Lange.
Arkansas Wins, the pro-casino group, provided this response from spokesman Robert Coon:
“The responsibility of the special master is to make findings of fact. 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 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.”
A company that helped gather petitions for this issue also was hired to gather signatures for a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. No challenge was mounted to those signatures, though the ballot title of that measure remains under challenge.
The master cites signatures gathered before canvassers had been certified and problems with some notary stamps applied before the signature. Jennings said too many signatures that were facially invalid were included in the secretary of state’s finding that a threshold had been met to gather more signatures. But Jennings found that the original submission of signatures fell 651 signatures below the 63,645 signatures required to qualify for an additional “cure” period. Jennings, a retired judge, also found shortcomings in getting background checks for canvassers who provided thousands of signatures gathered in the “cure” period. A key problem was using a background check from someone other than the State Police. He also accepted testimony from a handwriting expert that multiple signatures had been written by the same person. Inadequate or incomplete voter information was also a problem.
In conclusion, Jennings found insufficient signatures to qualify for the cure period. Even if they could have added signatures, insufficient valid signatures remained to qualify for the ballot.
Some of these same issues were cited in Special Master Jake Looney’s findings on the nursing home damage limitation amendment. Looney said the Supreme Court would have to decide as a matter of law questions about such issues as lack of State Police background checks, but said they could call sufficiency into question. The court has approved petitions for an initiated act for medical marijuana, largely a volunteer petition effort, though a challenge to those signatures also raised some similar questions. That proposal remains under challenge on sufficiency of its ballot title as does a medical marijuana amendment.
In the end, the Supreme Court must decide them all. Justice Courtney Goodson has recused from considering the casino case because she had financial support and other ties to the Cella family that owns Oaklawn Park. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, an opponent of the amendment, appointed Warren Dupwe to hear the case in her place.
The lawyers who challenged this amendment, from the Friday Law Firm, helped write the 2015 legislation that added a number of hurdles for paid canvassing operations to meet in gathering signatures. The bill was sponsored by legislators from Hot Springs and West Memphis.