Amid petition drive controversy

Florida: Polk County sees 63% of petitions rejected in Sands-backed gaming expansion proposal

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.
United States
Reading time 2:44 min

Following a report that Florida election supervisors were citing fraudulent signatures on a Las Vegas Sands-backed petition drive to expand gaming in the state, counties have begun reporting high percentages of rejected casino petitions. In the case of Polk County, elections supervisor Lori Edwards reported 63% of petitions were rejected.

Sands-backed committee Florida Voters in Charge is seeking to allow existing card rooms to become casinos if they are located 130 miles from tribal facilities. The amendment would open the door to casinos in North Florida, along the Interstate 10 corridor, and is geared toward a facility in the Jacksonville area.

In order to put the initiative on the November ballot, the committee is racing against time to submit 891,589 valid petition signatures by February 1. But as new reports roll, it would seem thousands of the signatures provided thus far are invalid or fraudulent, adding further pressure to the petition drive.

According to The Ledger, Edwards said on Monday her office found problems with nearly two-thirds of the petitions submitted thus far. A similar situation seems to be occurring in other counties across the state, in which election supervisors are also reporting high rejection rates, local media reports.

Polk County’s supervisor said most petitions rejected either contained names of voters not listed on the county’s rolls, or have borne signatures not matching ones the office has on record for the listed voter. In other cases, supervisors have reported petitions bearing the names of dead voters or forged signatures of actual voters, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Petitions must be submitted to the election office for the county in which a voter lives in order to be verified before being forwarded to the Florida Division of Elections. As of Monday, Edwards said that about 43,000 out of 68,000 petitions had been rejected. A majority -27,000- did not list names of voters registered in the county, while about 9,000 lacked valid signatures.

The 37% acceptance rate is much lower than that featured in other major petition drives, further reports The Ledger. Campaigns to get ballot placement for amendments on medical marijuana and raising the minimum wage, for instance, averaged about 62% in Polk County, according to Edwards.

Last week, Wesley Wilcox, the Marion County elections supervisor, said he found his forged signature on a form and claimed that gatherers had been dropping bundles of forms by the thousands at his office: sometimes, more than 80% couldn’t be verified.

Florida Voters in Charge has denied any effort to illegally push for the ballot initiative. Jim McKee, attorney for the committee, called the idea of purposely submitting fraudulent petitions “ridiculous,” as it would not help the effort “in any way.” 

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

Alleged irregularities in the petition drive first caught the attention of Secretary of State Laurel Lee last year. In a December 3 letter, her office referred claims of fraudulent petitions by six county elections supervisors to Attorney General Ashley Moody. Election supervisors had written seeking help in investigating the problematic petitions, the Miami Herald said.

Lee’s letter from last month mentioned “hundreds” of suspected fraudulent petitions, submitted by more than a dozen gatherers across the state from Oct. 14 to Dec. 1. The letter noted a provision of state law that would allow the attorney general to stop the suspect fraud without having to wait for law enforcement to build a criminal case, which Moody ultimately did not take.

Moody’s office said that once the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reviews the case, the Office of Statewide Prosecutor would review its findings, Tampa Bay Times reported at the time. Organizers for Las Vegas Sands said they were not aware of any investigation by the attorney general’s office. A spokesperson for Gov. DeSantis’ office said that the matter had been referred to Moody’s office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

As each petition includes the name of the circulator, along with an attestation the information is true under penalty of perjury, some petition circulators could face serious jail time, media reports.

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