As the fate of legal sports betting in Florida hangs in the balance in (virtual) courtrooms from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee, Fla., the real battle is taking place in theaters far outside the halls of justice. Signature gatherers, the people who ask us all to sign petitions in favor of or against everything from the use of medical marijuana to whether or not the Pledge of Allegiance may be uttered in schools, are out in force at Florida’s county fairs, football games, college campuses, and local grocery stores.
In what many in Florida have characterized as the most contentious signature-gathering effort in the state’s history, two groups are trying to gather a total of more than 2 million signatures in less than six months to get gaming expansions on the ballot. The Las Vegas Sands Corp. is pushing a proposal that would allow it to build three brick-and-mortar casinos, while a group of commercial sports betting operators, including DraftKings and FanDuel, is trying to get legal statewide mobile wagering on the ballot.
In addition, the Seminole Tribe, which doesn’t have a proposal it’s prepping for the ballot, is gathering signatures in symbolic support of its 2021 gaming compact. That effort serves in part to muddy the water for the official proposals. The new compact, approved by the state legislature in May and the U.S. Department of the Interior in August, has since been deemed illegal by a federal court. While the legality of the compact is in question, Floridians did get a taste of ostensibly legal sports betting: The tribe’s Hard Rock Digital sportsbook platform operated online for 34 days before the tribe complied with a court order and temporarily suspended operations.
Lawsuits, harassment, and more
Signature gathering, it turns out, is a seedy business. The Sands Corp. earlier this month sued entities connected to the Seminoles in Leon County (Fla.) court over what’s called “petition blocking,” and also made allegations of harassment. The Sands Corp. argued that the tribe’s contractors are paying petition workers to not work, and in some cases, to leave the state altogether. The Sands Corp. also accused these contractors of trying to impede its ability to collect signatures by being disruptive. There have been reports of both from both a Florida college newspaper and Politico. Over the weekend, after the Seminole entities lost a motion to have the case dismissed, the Sands Corp. withdrew its complaint.
How Long Until Sports Betting Is Back In Florida? https://t.co/kABK9my9DP
— 96.9 The Game (@969thegame) December 8, 2021
Beyond the tactics described in the pleadings, consider this: It is legal in Florida and many other states to have a criminal record and still work in the signature-gathering business. In fact, it is legal to have been convicted of election fraud and still work on petitions. Those familiar with signature-gathering efforts say it is common for ex-cons to work in the business. According to Florida law, anyone convicted of a felony that is not murder or sexual assault has the right to vote, and signature gatherers, in turn, must be registered voters. There are only a handful of U.S. states where it is illegal for a convicted felon to work as a petition gatherer.
In 2019, the Florida legislature passed and the governor signed House Bill 5, which banned paying petitioners based on the number of signatures collected (pay-per-signature), among other provisions related to statewide initiative and referendum. As of 2021, Arizona, Florida, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wyoming had bans on paying circulators on a per-signature basis, Alan Wilmot, senior legal counsel at Heitner Legal, told Sports Handle.
The state had previously considered altering its petition laws, but a 2008 bill that would have banned convicted felons from working as paid petition circulators died in the House Committee on Judiciary.
A prospective circulator may not be paid for gathering signatures in Oregon if the circulator has been convicted of a criminal offense involving fraud, forgery, or identification theft in any state within a period of five years. Under the law, the circulator is also prohibited from registering in the state. The stipulation also applies to circulators who have faced civil penalties for certain violations of election law.
Plenty of mudslinging going on
One figure getting thrust into the limelight, and the mud, in Florida is a veteran of signature-gathering campaigns who has been convicted of election fraud. It happened in 2011 in Virginia in what Shawn Wilmoth called a “setup.” Wilmoth got probation and has since worked on campaigns in multiple states.
He currently consults with Mack Douglas LLC, a petition company working in Florida on the Las Vegas Sands proposal, and has his own petition company, First Choice Contracting LLC, Petition Management Services. Mack Douglas LLC has three offices in Florida, according to its website, but is not registered with the Department of State, Division of Elections, a spokesperson said.
“None of my clients are willing to admit they are my clients,” Wilmoth told Sports Handle. “I pull the strings in the background. My opposition, what they do is they find out I have a contract, they go to the Washington Times, or somewhere else. I was working in Ohio on HB 6 and they went there at that time.
“I still manage larger-scale projects than other people, but I never thought I would have the problems I am having. But the clients know I do good work.”
One state lawmaker, who is not in the Florida legislature and wished to remain anonymous, told Sports Handle that it is “bad public policy” to allow people convicted of election fraud to work on signature-gathering initiatives, and that there should be laws preventing them from working on those type of campaigns.
But Jeff Brandes, a Florida state senator who did not support the tribal-state compact, disagrees, and supports the idea that reformed felons should be able to work in the signature-gathering business.
“The people that gather signatures, many of them have some type of criminal history, I would imagine,” Brandes told Sports Handle. “The question is are they doing it in Florida? I know they are gathering signatures, but have they committed a criminal offense in Florida?”
Brandes told Sports Handle that he believes that those who have been convicted of a non-violent crime and have served their time should be allowed to go back out into the world and make an honest living.
‘He’s been paying attention to the rules’
Since his conviction, Wilmoth has worked on many campaigns. In Ohio in 2019, he worked a campaign related to HB 6 and a nuclear bailout petition. At the time, Cleveland.com ran a story with the headline “Ohio House Bill 6 repeal campaign, struggling to find petitioners, hires supervisor with fraud conviction,” but as in Florida, it is not illegal to have a conviction and still work in the petition business in Ohio.
“He’s not collecting signatures. He coordinates where different people go, and doesn’t really contact the public,” Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts spokesman Gene Pierce told Cleveland.com at the time. “He’s been obeying Ohio law … and we’re fighting a daily battle to keep people in the field.
“We’ve got to use the people we can,” Pierce added. “And he’s been good. And he’s been paying attention to the rules.”
In 2017, Wilmoth was connected to signature-gathering efforts in Michigan. Just like in Ohio after it, and Florida now, competition for signature gatherers at that time was vicious.
“We have literally 4,000 people collecting signatures around Michigan — we haven’t run background checks on all 4,000 people, but we do very strictly analyze petitions as they are returned to us before submission to the Secretary of State,” Matthew Dobler told the Detroit Free Press at that time via email.
In Florida, a political consultant close to the Seminole Tribe echoed the idea that more competition — and a lack of time — can change the face of signature gathering.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that as time is running out the two initiative campaigns are becoming more and more desperate,” the consultant told Sports Handle. “Whether that Hail Mary strategy yields them an avenue to meet the necessary signature threshold remains to be seen, but the clock is ticking.”
Wilmoth: I was ‘unfairly convicted’
In Virginia, Wilmoth was convicted for hiring two signature gatherers with criminal records, which, at the time, disqualified them from collecting signatures. He said there was a sealed indictment that he was unaware of, and he complied with officials who arrested him in Michigan, his home base.
“Someone in my office hired people and didn’t do a background check,” Wilmoth said of the Virginia case. “So then it was pinned on me.”
He says he was unfairly convicted and has paid his debt to society, and his name comes up when those on the other side of an issue want to create a diversion.
“The only reason they are stirring the pot is they fear me,” he said. “I am taking work from them.
“Because I have a conviction … I take the approach of being very clean.”
Sports Handle spoke with two other individuals in the petition-gathering business who say they’ve had contact with Wilmoth regarding signature gathering in Florida this fall. One said that Wilmoth told them he wouldn’t fire anyone for turning in forged signatures, and another claimed that Wilmoth asked him to circulate a petition that had another signature gatherer’s identification number on it. Neither could offer physical proof, and both placed Wilmoth in Florida in October or November, though Wilmoth said he hasn’t been in the state nor did he directly hire anyone to collect signatures.
Wilmoth strongly refuted both claims and reiterated that he has not been in Florida since taking a vacation there in June. In addition, he said he works with judges, lawyers, and others in law enforcement on a regular basis and that those people wouldn’t work with him if he were trying to do something illegal.
“First off, we have very strict quality standards and we don’t accept forged signatures,” he told Sports Handle. “A lot of people that we have fired for forgery are working for the other side. We keep digital scans for every signature we’ve ever had.
“Not only have I not been in Florida, I would never encourage anyone to circulate a petition with someone else’s number. If you’re collecting signatures with somebody else’s paper, we can’t verify [anything].”
How signature gathering works
By Florida law, signature gatherers are paid hourly vs. by the signature. Multiple companies have advertised in the state for signature gatherers, and hourly rates vary wildly. One company, Initiative and Referendum Campaign Management Services, is offering $17/hour to start with a $2/hour raise per week up to $35.
Wilmoth posted on Facebook seeking signature gatherers to “expand gaming in Florida.” The post says there is the opportunity to “make quite a bit of money” and that Mack Douglas LLC pays daily. The post also says the jobs are “felony friendly.”
According to a source, the hourly wage can ultimately be tied to the number of signatures gathered. For example, companies will offer to boost rates for more effective signature gatherers, so the more signatures collected in an hour, the higher the wage. That is, de facto, paying per signature.
In addition, there is no requirement that a petition be signed in the presence of a signature gatherer. In fact, multiple campaigns in Florida have bar codes voters can scan to download and mail in signed petitions, and petitions are being mailed to voters’ homes.
Florida law specifically permits the signing of petitions outside the presence of a circulator:
Secretary of State Election Division, Admin. Rule 1S-2.009(9): “Petition forms may be reproduced in newspapers, magazines, and other forms of printed mass media, provided such forms are reproduced in the same format as approved by the Division. The petition forms may be included within a larger advertisement, provided the forms are clearly defined by a solid or broken line border.”
Current petition landscape
Whatever the rules, both the Sands Corp. and the commercial operators are continuing to move forward with gathering signatures. According to the Florida Department of Elections website, there are more than 30 proposals addressing an array of topics aiming for the November 2022 ballot, making for a crowded marketplace. Several gaming companies have spent tens of millions of dollars in Florida petition-gathering efforts, underscoring the intense push to make it onto the ballot. Altogether, multiple outside groups have collectively spent about $60 million in PAC funding to hire about 1,000 workers to contest the Seminoles’ efforts, tribe spokesman Gary Bitner told Politico.
Signed the Florida Sports Betting Petition because I'm against government mandated monopolies.
— 🏉🍿AJ⚡🦃 (@TampaBayAJ) December 7, 2021
Those collecting signatures for November 2022 initiatives have until Feb. 1, 2022, to submit signatures to the state for verification. Proponents must obtain 891,589 verified signatures to get on the ballot. In general, political committees seek to gather 10% more signatures than needed because some will be deemed invalid.
As of Tuesday morning, according to the Florida Department of Elections website, Florida Voters in Charge, the Sands Corp.’s political committee, had 175 verified signatures, but it’s likely it has collected more. The state site posts only those that have been verified. Florida Education Champions, the political committee running the statewide mobile betting campaign, had 173,834 signatures verified, but according to a spokesperson in late November had collected more than 600,000 total signatures.
— Matt Rybaltowski and Brett Smiley contributed to this report