30-day extension denied

Arkansas: Choctaw-backed ballot seeking to halt Cherokee’s Pope County casino project fails to submit required signatures

Rendering for the proposed Legends Resort and Casino in Arkansas.
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Casino opponents proposing a constitutional amendment intended to remove Pope County as a state-license casino site have failed to submit enough signatures of registered voters that would have granted them an additional 30 days to gather the needed signatures to get on the ballot. The news was confirmed by Secretary of State John Thurston on Monday.

According to Thurston, the Choctaw Tribe-funded Fair Play Arkansas 2022 committee needed to submit 66,864 valid signatures of registered voters in order to qualify for a 30-day cure period, but his office verified no less than 62,859 registered voters.

In a letter to James Knight of the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee, Thurston specified that the required number of valid signatures for sponsors to qualify their proposed constitutional amendment for the ballot is 89,151. Thus, the committee’s petition is deemed "insufficient and not eligible" for reform or amendment, the Republican secretary of state said, as reported by the Arkansas News.

Committee spokesman Hans Stiritz said Monday that the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee will review the statement provided by the Secretary of State to determine any future efforts. "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 added.

The secretary of state certifying that the sponsor has submitted the required number of valid signatures of registered voters on a petition is just one of the two requirements. Certification of a proposed ballot measure’s popular name and ballot title is also a requirement for a proposal to get on the general election ballot.

According to Act 376 of 2019, the responsibility for certifying a proposed ballot measure's popular name and ballot shifted from the attorney general to the state Board of Election Commissioners.

Last week, the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners declined to certify the ballot title for the proposed constitutional amendment. According to the commissioners, the ballot title lacked a reference to the existing license held by Cherokee Nation Businesses for the casino site.

The Legends Resort and Casino, a $225 million project, would be located near Russellville, off Hob Nob Road. It is set to feature 1,100 slot machines, 32 table games, and 200 hotel rooms. 

The license for the casino was awarded on November 12, after the Arkansas Racing Commission ruled to nullify the license previously awarded to Gulfside Casino Partnership. Last month, the project received approval from the city of Russellville. 

Amendment 100 authorized in 2018 four casinos in different parts of the state, three of them now in operation in West Memphis, Pine Bluff, and Hot Springs. The licenses allow for expanded 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. 

Fair Play’s ballot referendum loss is Legends’ win, with Cherokee Nation Businesses Attorney David Couch stating: "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".

The Choctaws operate Oklahoma casinos and may see the Pope County casino as a threat to its business, and the Cherokee Nation also has Oklahoma casinos and sees Pope County as a potentially profitable market in which to expand.