Lies, frauds, lawsuits, and more. The drama surrounding a possible gaming expansion in Florida continued in all quarters this week.
Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald ran yet another story surrounding election fraud in which election supervisors across the state are saying they’ve been dealing with “thousands of fraudulent petitions.” The day before, the U.S. Department of the Interior revealed plans to appeal a federal court ruling that deemed the Seminole Tribe’s compact with the state to be unlawful. And Google has had enough of all of it and banned sports betting advertising in the state.
Oh, and Florida Education Champions (FEC), the group running the DraftKings– and FanDuel-backed referendum campaign, has been flying under the radar of all the noise as it continues to collect signatures ahead of Feb. 1, when the secretary of state must determine which proposed initiatives will make the ballot.
Suffice to say, lots to unpack in Florida. Let’s go in reverse order.
FEC initiative proposal
According to FEC, the group is continuing to collect signatures for the ballot initiative that would allow for statewide mobile sports betting. Under the proposal, platforms could be untethered, and any operator that is licensed in 10 or more states could participate. That narrows the pool significantly, and so far DraftKings and FanDuel have footed the $36 million bill. Last week, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy lent his support to the cause, but his company apparently has not officially signed on to the campaign.
Emergency Press Conference – I Am Here to Save Sports Gambling in Florida pic.twitter.com/2Ne6DQ97D9
— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) January 14, 2022
FEC — or any other political campaign trying to get an initiative on the ballot — must collect 891,589 verified signatures to get on the ballot. According to the Division of Elections website Friday morning, FEC had 405,947 verified signatures, up by around 100,000 from last week. FEC hasn’t been releasing how many signatures it has collected since Nov. 30, when a spokesperson put the number at more than 600,000.
“Florida Education Champions continues to collect and submit petitions to local supervisors of elections throughout the state for validation and prior to the Feb. 1, 2022 deadline,” Christina Johnson, a spokesperson, shared with Sports Handle Thursday. “There has been ongoing paid media advertising on all channels and platforms designed to raise awareness and assist the paid circulator effort, and that is continuing.”
Besides Portnoy’s plea, DraftKings is making a push for signatures with the promise of $100 in DraftKings credit for Florida customers should the initiative get on the ballot. And DraftKings CEO Jason Robins told radio personality Dan Le Batard earlier in the month that “I’m worried we’re not going to get there, it’s going to be really close.”
Sign the petition to add sports betting to the Florida ballot. All you have to do is print, sign, & mail in yours by Jan. 19.
— DraftKings (@DraftKings) January 18, 2022
“If we are able to get Florida to legalize sports betting, we’re going to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for education…” – @DraftKings CEO @JasonDRobins shares some of the potential benefits of legalizing sports betting in Florida.
🎙 https://t.co/MGvY4CbxAu pic.twitter.com/csJYVZja9z
— Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz (@LeBatardShow) January 12, 2022
Other stakeholders have been flooding Twitter in an effort to drum up signatures. Google, however, has apparently had enough sports betting ads:
Google Ads posted a new update that you a no longer to promote sports betting ads in Florida using the Google Ads platform.
— SF Digital Studios (@SFDigital) January 20, 2022
Dept. of Interior to appeal
While the race for signatures continues, U.S. Dept. of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday filed notice that she and the DOI will appeal the federal court decision that vacated the Seminoles’ expanded gaming compact with the state of Florida. The actual appeal must be filed by Saturday in federal appeals court, where the case has moved to.
There are no details in the notice — those will come once the appeal is filed — but Haaland and the DOI would have to show the court that they do have the right to approve a compact that allows for off-reservation wagering. At the heart of the compact is the idea that any bet placed anywhere in the state of Florida would be considered to have been placed on tribal lands if it flows through a Seminole server on tribal lands. A U.S. District Court ruled the compact unlawful, saying that the DOI does not have the right to oversee or regulate gaming off tribal lands.
The Seminoles themselves appealed the decision late last year in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, but there has yet to be a ruling. The appeals court did uphold the district court’s ruling, forcing the Seminoles to shut down their Hard Rock Digital platform, which was operational in the state for 34 days.
The compact would have given the Seminoles a monopoly on sports betting. There are other avenues to legalize digital wagering. The tribe could potentially renegotiate the compact to be either more inclusive or restrict wagering to tribal lands, the state legislature could legalize statewide mobile wagering for commercial operators, which would allow the Seminoles to operate their platform, or, as covered above, voters could approve a ballot measure.
Lies, signatures, and gaming?
The Las Vegas Sands Corp. is also attempting to get an initiative on the November 2022 ballot — and that campaign has been under fire for months. According to the Times/Herald story, elections supervisors across Florida are now forwarding reports of fraudulent petitions to the attorney general’s office, and claim that many of the fraudulent petitions are connected to the Las Vegas Sands effort. The campaign, run by Florida Voters in Charge, according to the Division of Elections website so far has 593,604 verified signatures, and has spent nearly $46 million, making it the priciest petition drive in history, according to Ballotopedia. The next two most expensive in history both also took place in Florida: 2020’s Amendment 4 ($8.8 million) and 2020’s Amendment 1 ($7.9 million).
Among the claims made in the story are that petition gatherers are submitting thousands of fraudulent petitions, including two that hit close to home. From the story: “In one case, Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox found both his and his wife’s signatures forged on petition forms.”
— Howard Stutz (@howardstutz) January 20, 2022
The volume of fake petitions is causing a backlog for elections supervisors, who said in the story that verifying fake signatures takes two or three times as long as verifying valid signatures. The fraud will ultimately cause them to raise their rates. In recent months, Las Vegas Sands has been accused of paying petition gatherers to leave the state and of paying petition gatherers by the signature (which is illegal), and there have been claims of harassment. On the topic of fraudulent signatures, Jim McKee, an attorney for Florida Voters in Charge, told the Herald, “The idea that our committee would purposely submit fraudulent petitions is ridiculous. This would not help our effort in any way.”
The proposal would allow card rooms around Florida to morph into Las Vegas-style casinos as long as those card rooms are at least 130 miles from a Seminole/Hard Rock casino. The goal, it seems, is to build a brick-and-mortar casino in Jacksonville, and potentially other locations.
The Seminole Tribe clearly opposed the Las Vegas Sands proposal and has been lobbying against it by hiring its own petitioners to sign petitions in support of the tribe, which does not have its own ballot proposal. The Las Vegas Sands Corp. previously sued the petition-gathering companies hired by the Seminoles for attempting to block and harass signature gatherers, and that group of Seminole-related businesses then accused Las Vegas Sands in court of paying per signature.