LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- The odds just got longer for a casino proposal to stay on the November ballot.
A "special master" assisting in a trial regarding a proposed amendment to allow casinos in Arkansas submitted a report Monday that claims hundreds of signatures were improperly approved. The report will be considered by the Arkansas Supreme Court and could be the basis for removing the proposed constitutional amendment from the ballot.
“The decision is what we felt all along, and what our attitude was all along regarding the insufficiency of the petitions,” said Bill Walmsley, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, “and we’re hoping that those findings of fact that the Master made, and the conclusions he drew, will ultimately be adopted by the Supreme Court.”
The 16-page report follows a three-day hearing led by Special Master John Jennings, a retired appeals court judge. It details numerous missteps made by Arkansas Wins in 2016, the group campaigning to pass the casino amendment, and canvassers it employed.
“The special master’s responsibility is to make findings of fact. We feel like the special master in this particular case went beyond his responsibility, and made conclusions of law. Conclusions of law are the jurisdiction of the Arkansas Supreme Court. And not only do we feel like he kind of overstepped his bounds in that regard, we also feel like the conclusions that he made were wrong,” said Robert Coon, a spokesman for Arkansas Wins in 2016.
The first half of the report focuses on the initial set of signatures validated by the Secretary of State’s Office. Arkansas Wins in 2016 submitted 87,108 signatures, with 84,859 being the number to reach to get on the ballot. The Secretary of State’s Office validated 63,725, which was enough by just 80 names, per the state constitution, to earn organizers 30 more days to reach the target. It eventually turned in enough valid signatures to earn a spot on the ballot.
But according to the special master’s report, 729 signatures were validated even though they should not have been. Some were incomplete; some were collected after the petition was notarized; and other were collected by paid canvassers before they registered with the Secretary of State’s Office. If those signatures had been tossed out, Arkansas Wins in 2016 would not have gotten its extension and would not have qualified to go before voters.
“If his findings are adopted by the Supreme Court, I think that the issue will be removed from the ballot,” Walmsley said.
While the report claims the issues were not discovered by the Secretary of State’s Office, Walmsley said he did not blame it for the errors.
“It took good, qualified lawyers a great deal of preparation to get these arguments before the Supreme Court,” he explained, “and probably the Secretary of State didn’t have the luxury of all of that.”
The report is just another piece for the Supreme Court to consider, and there is a chance it does not affect the court’s final decision. The creators of the proposed amendment, which would allow three casinos near Texarkana, Fayetteville, and Harrison, have also filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Coon said the motion has merit because the plaintiffs do not have standing to sue, since they are not directly impacted by the proposal.
“Two other committees have also now filed similar motions to dismiss in their cases, following the same legal argument that we’re making,” Coon added. “So we feel confident in that, and the Supreme Court will have to take a look at that, as well.”
Walmsley guessed that the state Supreme Court would rule on the special master’s report within two to three weeks. The timing is crucial, since the election is five weeks from Tuesday.
“You’ll still see TV ads and get things in your mailbox, and we’re still full steam ahead,” Coon said.