The Jan Morgan campaign for governor has officially cancelled its gun giveaway promotion to raise campaign cash, an attorney volunteering with the campaign informs me.
Those who made donations in order to participate in the drawing have had their money returned, said Hot Springs attorney Joe Churchwell in an email. “The credit card transactions have been reversed or cancelled,” he stated. Chuchwell said that the campaign would also return all contributions from a separate fundraiser, a “reverse drawing” raffle, that took place on a campaign cruise event in Hot Springs last month.
Late last month, the Morgan campaign announced a drawing, with the top prize a commemorative Kimber micro 9 handgun engraved with Jan Morgan’s signature. To enter the random drawing, people had to donate at least $50 to the campaign (via the normal donation process on the website). Shortly after the gun giveaway promotion began, we noted on the blog that the drawing — as well as the earlier campaign raffle event on the cruise boat — appeared to violate the law. State law only allows such drawings under certain narrow circumstances, and raising campaign cash isn’t one of them.
The next day, the webpage for the drawing was taken down at the advice of Churchwell, who the campaign asked for help in managing these issues. Because campaign finance was not his area of expertise, he said at the time that he would need some time to research the law, but thought it would be prudent to put things on hold in the mean time. Eventually, he concluded that it was best to call the whole thing off. “Without expending a lot of time or resources on these two events, we decided there is some merit to the complainant’s argument, and really that’s enough,” he said. “We’re moving forward.” I’m not aware of any official complaint being filed, but “complainant” may be a reference to Nate Bell, a former state legislator and social media gadfly who lodged numerous complaints online about what he (correctly) deemed illegal raffles held by the Morgan campaign.
The Arkansas constitution bars lotteries except in narrow circumstances, and drawings such as the one announced by Morgan’s campaign have generally been considered unlawful lotteries. Amendment 84 to the Arkansas Constitution created an exception to the original prohibition on lotteries in the constitution, allowing raffles and bingo, but only for certain approved charities, which must acquire a license to hold such events, to raise money for “for charitable, religious, or philanthropic purposes.” A political campaign would not qualify. Amendment 87 later allowed lotteries, but only for a state lottery established by the General Assembly, with revenues targeted for certain designated purposes. The Jan Morgan gun giveaway, as well as her “reverse drawing” raffle, met none of those exemptions and appeared to be held in violation of the law.
Prior to Churchwell coming aboard, the campaign had a more colorful slate of defenses and dodges. Originally, when I asked about the legality, a member of the campaign team replied by email, “Nowhere in the description does it say ‘raffle.'” Sadly, the legality of such an event does not hinge on whether or not the word “raffle” is used. In any case, if it’s not an approved raffle, it’s an illegal lottery. Any contest that requires participants to pay to enter a contest for a prize, with the winner then chosen randomly (as opposed to, ahem, “electronic games of skill”), is illegal under the state constitution — unless it’s the state lottery, or an authorized raffle or bingo game held by a licensed nonprofit. The Morgan campaign had also originally told me that they had spoken with the Ethics Commission “about the wording and legality,” but commission staff told me that the commission does not have any authority over the question, would not have okayed the legality of a campaign raffle, and generally alert campaigns that ask about such raffles about the constitutional prohibition as a point of general information.
The most enterprising shenanigans, however, were yet to come. After my first post was published, the webpage for the gun giveaway began to undergo alterations. Along with other changes, all mentions of the word “drawing” were changed to “choosing,” the words “prizes” and “giveaway” were eliminated, and the words “win,” “winning,” and “winner” were also deleted or replaced. All of this semantic tinkering didn’t have anything to do with the law in question, but the creation of the euphemism “choosing” is a victory all its own.
Morgan also removed a livestream video of the reverse-drawing raffle from her Facebook page.
Once Churchwell came aboard, he said that if any law was broken, it was an honest mistake. Fair enough.
No prosecutor is going to go after a campaign for an illegal raffle, but for the record for the law and order crowd: The first violation of a raffle conducted without a license is punishable by up to a $10,000 fine; the second or subsequent offense is a Class D felony. A felony conviction would make someone ineligible to own a firearm.